Author offers a fresh take on ages-old Passover seder

Noam Zion recalls the Passover seders of his youth with great fondness.

There were no grumbling stomachs or children being smacked on the hand and instructed to behave. Instead, Zion's father, a Conservative rabbi in Minneapolis, led seders of song, debate and drama.

For many Jews, a seder means dutifully turning pages of the free Maxwell House Haggadah from the grocery store, stumbling over biblical names and wondering when dinner will be served.

To help other Jews have Passover experiences more like his own, Zion created "The Family Participation Haggadah: A Different Night." Zion will speak to an invited group about the Haggadah and ways to create a meaningful seder on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 8 at the Hebrew Academy Auditorium in San Francisco. His visit, part of the Bureau of Jewish Education's Feast of Jewish Learning, is sponsored by the friends of the Jewish Community Library and the BJE's family education project.

Zion will also speak at 10 a.m. Sunday at Temple Isaiah, 3800 Mount Diablo Blvd., Lafayette. RSVP: (510) 283-8575.

Before he began his project, which is sponsored and published by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem where he is an instructor, Zion admits that he grappled with the questions, "Who needs another Haggadah?" and "Who needs another Haggadah commentary?

The only honest answer he could come up with is no one needs a new Haggadah. But that doesn't mean they wouldn't appreciate a fresh approach, he explains.

"The seder isn't just for reading and studying. It's for doing, dressing up and ritual eating," Zion said during a recent phone interview from his home in Jerusalem. "I tried to identify how to give people the resources to do that."

Zion accomplishes this in several ways.

First, he teaches families how to cheat. Knowing full well that few families will go through the entire 180-page Haggadah, Zion denotes crucial sections as necessary for what he deems "the bare-bones seder," which is about 40 minutes in length.

Second, and perhaps most important, Zion suggests that rather than merely dipping karpas in saltwater, that the host place a variety of appetizers and dips on the table to stave off hunger.

"This is what the rabbis did and I think this is more what they had in mind," Zion said. "Plus, the pressure of food is now off."

Next, Zion suggests that the host ask guests not only to bring food, but also a five-minute activity.

"Think about who is at the seder. Identify three strong personalities and ask them to contribute," Zion said. "Say to your artistic friend, 'Bring gefilte fish, and also take five minutes to draw the four children at seder.'"

Zion adds that sending your friend a copy of "A Different Night," which contains more than a dozen different artistic depictions of the four children, will give the artist a sense of legitimacy in coming up with his or her own ideas.

Now, "Call up two other guests and give them a part. Five minutes each," Zion continues.

For instance, have the psychologist in the group talk about the dynamics at work in celebrating the miseries that befell the Egyptians. Call a wonderful storytelling grandma and have her tell a story.

"Everyone will be excited to see what the other comes up with," Zion said, adding, "This also takes a lot of pressure off the seder leader. When people know they are on the roster, they'll give you a chance to do your thing too.

"It's no longer the leader struggling against everyone else and having to prepare too hard."

In his Haggadah, Zion includes many anecdotes, artistic depictions, scripts and ideas for families to use as a jumping-off point. But these are merely suggestions.

"What I want to do is give seder leaders a little confidence, to provide a Haggadah where people wouldn't have to agree on what it is, but can customize it to fit their needs," Zion said. "A seder shouldn't always have the same format. Each seder should take into consideration people with different backgrounds. Are the guests artists? Intellectuals? Children?

"The core of the seder should be the same, nostalgic and old, but 10 percent should be different every time. Like a museum itinerary, this Haggadah gives you different paths to choose depending on what you want."

Ultimately, he said, such a plan ensures that each seder "will be `A Different Night.'"