PAULA SHOYER: How to Save Your Seder (and Create New Traditions)

By Paula Shoyer

The Seder of my childhood was hosted by my father, Reubin Marcus, and was very by the book. On rare occasions, my father allowed his day-school educated children to share what they learned, but only as long as it did not interfere with the recitation of every single word of the Haggadah. My mother invited relatives, and the food was good. We all sang songs off-key with different tunes, but that added some comedy. I was always left with the feeling there could have been more discussion – or something to vary the experience from year to year.

As a junior in college, I spent a semester at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. That year, I joined my Israel-born roommate, Limor Decter, and her grandparents, countless aunts, uncles, and cousins for Passover. In Israel, Jews only celebrate one Seder, so we divided our time between the Kivitys, her mother’s Iraqi family in Ramat Gan, and the Cohens, her father’s Moroccan family in Bnei Brak.

We went to the Iraqis first and stayed all the way through a delicious meal. Then we walked the mile plus to the Moroccans, where we ate another entire meal (this one with rice!) and stayed until about two a.m.—the four cups of wine and the Haggadah songs were just a starting point for Limor’s uncles. We American college students had never experienced a Seder that was a true party—we sang and drank for hours. It opened up my eyes to the possibility of Seders truly being fun.

When I married my husband, Andy, I was told that the Rosenberg family Seder, on his father’s side, was a really big deal. Over forty people gathered in a rented space for a catered meal, with the Seder led by Andy’s father, Arthur Shoyer, may his memory be a blessing. The problem for me was that the food was not kosher, so I had to bring my own. Over the years, that became burdensome as our family grew to six. We ate our food cold, while all the cousins had hot matzoh ball soup, something that did not always elicit smiles from my then-young children.

My kids adapted, as the Seder was joyous and full of cousins they saw only once a year. In addition, everyone in Andy’s family has a truly spectacular voice, so the singing was special and they sang lovely family tunes from Romania. Yet I was disappointed that the Seder was quite abridged: The first part, consisting of the retelling of the Exodus story, was brief, and focused on the highlights, after which we proceeded to the meal. The second half of the Seder consisted solely of the major songs, leaving grace after meals, the Hallel section, and minor songs untouched.

At some point, Andy and I decided that there had to be something better than a Seder where you just read all the words, and one where you skipped half of them. So we started hosting our own Seders. Andy leads the Seder surrounded by a pile of Haggadahs and commentaries and shares readings from them. A major part of our Seder is the Exodus story told in the form of a play written by Andy. One year a guest brought a bag of costumes, and the teens at the table dressed as Pharaoh, Moses and Israelite women.

We incorporate both Andy’s Romanian tunes and those from my childhood. Our children share insights they learned in school, and we talk about our own struggles and how we can overcome them as the Israelites did theirs. Our favorite tradition takes place during the song “Chad Gadya” –- everyone gets to be a character from the song and has to develop a sound to represent it. We go around the table and each person makes the sound on cue. We love to hear the grandfathers make sounds like a dog or goat, and somehow there’s always someone who can create hilarious sounds for fire and water. Everyone at the table laughs and laughs.

I look forward to the Seders of my future.

Reprinted with permission from The New Passover Menu © 2015 by Paula Shoyer, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. Photography by Michael Bennett Kress.