Seder guide perfect for newbies, old pros

If you're thinking about doing your first Passover seder at home, or you want to impress all your friends from the seder you normally attend every year, or if you are just looking to understand the intricacies of the yearly ritual, "Passover: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration" will have something for you.

This second edition of Wolfson and Grishaver's guide was originally published in a series called "The Art of Jewish Living," a project of the Conservative movement's Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs and the University of Judaism, which included similar guides to Shabbat and Chanukah.

The new edition, reformatted but with substantially the same text as the first, features the practices of actual families in their own words (the first edition even included photographs), then gives analyses of the structure and ideas of the holiday. It also provides concrete suggestions for how to do every part of the ritual and preparation.

The Passover guide introduces us to a variety of families, including a single mother and her adolescent son, a mixed traditional/

non-traditional home with an active interest in community affairs, a Sephardi couple and their adult children, and an intermarried couple. The families talk about their ways of observing the holiday, then the text plunges into an outline of the seder ritual in four "acts." Pointing out the importance of the number four in the seder (four questions, four children, four cups of wine), Wolfson and Grishaver say, "If we view the seder as a kind of dramatic talk-feast, the four acts represent a way to look at the Haggadah in its broadest form."

Act one covers the preliminary activities, lighting candles and Kiddush, karpas (eating greens), etc. and concluding with Ha Lahma Anya, the invitation to all to join the Passover feast.

Act two includes Maggid (The Tellings), and four (again!) ways of narrating the Exodus from Egypt, including the famous four questions.

Act three, The Feast, includes the actual meal and all the ritual foods and their blessings.

Act Four, Redemption, celebrates with songs and prayers what it means to be free. Interestingly, each of these acts features another cup of wine.

Using the four-act scenario as an outline, Part I of the book analyzes the structure of the seder, showing the patterns of its symbolism and the connections between the parts as it goes through the Haggadah in sequence. Each chapter begins with a quote or two from the families. The authors then introduce the broad concepts behind each text or ritual, often with a lightly humorous tone. A marvelous example is the introduction to Urhatz, the first washing of the hands at the very beginning of the seder. Here, the authors explain the ancient Jewish concept of ritual purity by referring to children's use of the term "cooties," as in "you've got cooties" or "be careful not to catch cooties."

Chapters conclude with the objects you need for each ritual and precise instructions for how to perform it, along with suggestions for new approaches or variations, often from the families. All the texts that the authors comment on are provided in Hebrew with line-by-line transliteration and translation for easy comprehension.

If you're reading this book because you're planning that first seder at your house, Part II is for you. Preparing for Passover begins like Part I, with interviews and advice from the families. It goes on to provide tips on how to lead the service and at the same time involve guests and children, and gives suggestions on how to choose a Haggadah and edit it for your needs. It finishes with a handy-dandy list of "Fifteen Steps to a Great Seder." The rest of Part II is devoted to kashrut for Passover: getting the house and kitchen ready, and yes, another handy-dandy list which everybody needs, a "20-point Seder Table Items Checklist."

This extremely well-thought-out book allows the reader to think about the deep structure and meaning of the seder at the same time that it provides practical advice and encouragement for creative solutions. Armed with this book you should be ready to get out there and make a seder with the best of them.