Obama and guests dip their fingers in wine to recite the ten plagues
President Barack Obama and the First Family mark the beginning of Passover with a Seder with friends and staff in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House, March 29, 2010. (Photo/Flickr-White House-Pete Souza)

Laissez faire or dictator? After 30 years of leading seders, some suggestions

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Since Passover is an eight-day holiday of freedom, and the seder a celebration of the going out from Egypt, one may think the guests are clamoring for a democratic free-form kind of dinner — from chanting the Kiddush to singing “Chad Gadya.” But in my experience of leading family seders for over 30 years, if I give everyone a free hand to comment and question — and the seder runs long — revolution erupts, with the guests vigorously chanting “When do we eat?” And if I try to rule the table with an iron Kiddush cup, my poll numbers plummet, especially among the restless, 20-something contingent, who start texting madly under the table, presumably plotting a resistance.

Defying typical political alignment, I have found that on the nights when the seder works — when most every question has been asked, and tradition and innovation have been shared — my style of leadership has fallen somewhere between benevolent dictator and liberal talk-show host.

I say “benevolent dictator” because it is part of the leader’s job to find a way for everyone to retell the Passover story and ultimately exit the slavery of Egypt — even though they may not necessarily feel the need. Going around the table urging guests to share the reading is one way, and calling up guests beforehand to discuss and assign a specific section of the seder is another. It helps to ask them personally beforehand rather than springing the task on them on the night of the seder, especially for whoever is going to lead the Four Questions, which at our table is usually the youngest who can read. Such quiet lobbying helps reorient guests from being audience members into participants, as the haggadah says, who can see themselves as if they had left Egypt.

As “liberal talk show host,” I get that the haggadah is filled with questions that must be questioned as well. I once opened a seder by asking, “What does it mean when the haggadah says: ‘Let all those who are hungry come and eat with us?’ ” Especially in a year such as this one, where even benign conversation is abuzz with politics, there are going to be varying responses, from the bitter, like maror, to the sweet, like charoset.

If you’re not leading but participating in the seder, don’t think that you are off the hook in setting its tone.

At the time, you may not think that these opposing points of view are what binds a seder together, but recall that in the haggadah, when the five rabbis are sitting in Bnei Brak telling and interpreting the story of the Exodus, each has something different to add, and it is the whole of their interpretations taken together that heightens our understanding of the text.

If you’re not leading but participating in the seder, don’t think that you are off the hook in setting its tone. In his book “Keeping Passover,” Ira Steingroot points out that being a seder guest “doesn’t mean that you have to be the life of the party or a maven (authority), and you certainly do not want to monopolize the conversation, but you have a role to play in the drama of the seder.” In fact, it is your responses and feelings that determine whether everyone at the table makes it past the plague of ennui. To aid in that quest, be sure you are following along, asking questions and responding to the leader’s prompts.

I have also learned that regardless of leadership style — some of us are like Moses pointing the way, others are more like Miriam, leading through interpretation and song — you will still need to do your homework. Whichever your style, Steingroot’s book is a great source, as well as “Passover: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration” by Ron Wolfson with Joel Lurie Grishaver, and ”A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah” by David Dishon and Noam Zion.

Taking my own advice, a few nights before our first encounter with all things matzah each year, I go through the haggadah and annotate, searching for my afikomen: a way to connect the story of traveling from slavery to freedom to the lives of my guests. One year I held up a Passover chocolate bar and referred to it as “the bean of our affliction,” calling attention to the children who are sometimes exploited to harvest cacao beans and as a way to discuss if we, too, were participating in slavery.

This year to provoke discussion, before we open the door to Elijah, I plan on asking guests to imagine what would happen if the prophet, as we imagine him — a robed and perhaps turbaned man from the Middle East — was detained at airport customs?

Edmon Rodman
Edmon J. Rodman

Edmon J. Rodman writes about Jewish life from his home in Los Angeles and is the author of the weekly Guide for the Jewplexed on virtualjerusalem.com. Contact him at [email protected].