Holidays are defined by their foods. When someone says they're roasting a turkey, you'll think instantly of Thanksgiving. Similarly, candy follows Halloween, and chocolate goes with Valentine's Day.
For those of us who were born into the traditions of Jewish holidays, knowing when we eat fried potato latkes and when we eat apples with honey and when we eat matzo comes just as naturally.
Passover — the Jewish spring holiday celebrating ancient Israelites' liberation from Egyptian slavery — is no exception.
"Wait," said a non-Jewish friend once, as 12 of us sat down for a Hanukkah dinner in December. "Isn't this the dinner where we dip parsley into saltwater?"
I laughed out loud. I couldn't help it. He'd confused Hanukkah and Passover!
But why would he know the difference between the two if he hadn't simply grown up knowing that Hanukkah celebrates with fried foods, while Passover is the holiday with all the dipping, and the wine, and the matzo? I couldn't expect that of him. And I vowed to invite him for our next Seder — not to school him on being Jewish (because historically, I'm more -ish than Jew, so I'm not one to preach anyway), but to give him an experience that might intrinsically show him what Passover means to me.
I grew up knowing that matzo, the cracker many Jews live on during the week of Passover, is a modern substitute for the unleavened bread ancient Jews carried as they trekked out of Egypt after being freed from slavery (and that it's great with Nutella, if you're into that sort of thing). I grew up knowing that during Passover, we eat reclining on pillows to remember the luxury of freedom and the joy of having a pillow fight with your brother. I grew up knowing that while we opened the door for the prophet Elijah in the middle of each year's Seder, it was really my dad who drank the wine from Elijah's cup.
But more than anything, I grew up thinking Passover was fun. Maybe it's a silly concept for a holiday that commemorates freedom from slavery. But at its heart, for me, the holiday is just that — a little silly. And each year, I want to make sure anyone who is celebrating it for the first time with us has a good time.
3 Ways We Make Passover Fun for Newbies
1. Play "find the matzo."
The first way to make Passover fun for newbies is to remember that in the Haggadah, the traditional text that accompanies the Seder, there's a formal role for kids. The point is to teach a story. Kids ask four prescribed questions, and the adults (or other kids) answer them. In my house, children are rewarded for all the listening with a hide-and-seek game of "find the matzo" — but if there's a guest who has never been to a Seder, make her play the role of the youngest kid.
For us, this sometimes means going as far as making the guest dig through our bedroom to find the missing piece of matzo (the Afikomen), and rewarding her search with, say, a bottle of wine. (Oh, wine. Did I mention the wine? A strict Passover usually entails four or more cups of wine, many consumed before really eating anything, so there's that.)
2. Find a Hagaddah that matches the attention span of our audience.
To be clear, a Haggadah is a flexible thing. It's usually as big as a pamphlet and sometimes as big as a book — sometimes in English, sometimes in Hebrew, and sometimes in both. Strict Jews follow Haggadot (plural) whose readings can take hours, while others follow more abbreviated versions.
Every year, without fail, I read my brother's Haggadah. Yes, my brother actually writes one — all on his own! Why do I read his? Because I don't read Hebrew, and because his is always just the right length, and because in his infinite creative wisdom, Uncle Josh, as he's known around here, reframes the telling of the Exodus in a modern context. So instead of, say, the Pharaoh of Egypt, the big bad guy in the story might be a current political figure; instead of boils or frogs, the plagues the Jews endured so long ago might be described in terms of the effects of global warming.
Uncle Josh's Haggadah (of which there are many versions) makes the reading fun, but most importantly, it makes the story universal. It's critical, in my mind, that we use Passover as a time not only to reflect upon the strengths and tribulations of our forebears, but also to think about what's happening today. It sounds serious — who wants a dinner designed to contemplate geopolitical strife? — but ultimately, because we're all lounging on poufs and downing wine, the atmosphere tends to stay light.
3. Serve plenty of appetizers.
Finally, Passover is only fun if you serve appetizers. Traditionally, a full Seder prescribes eating different parts of the meal at very specific times. As a result, many Jews remember Passover as The Night They Starved, because so many hours were spent reading a long Haggadah before any food was served. In this way, I am not even close to traditional. Let my people eat!
Yes, we will eat matzo ball soup. Yes, we will dip parsley into saltwater while we sit on pillows gathered from all corners of the house. And yes, we will have a little fun.
More on Passover
Do you have Passover traditions of your own? Tell us about them in the comments below!