Thursday, March 29, 2012

Involving Children in the Seder: Phone Conference and Website

We're trying something new at the United Synagogue of Hoboken.  For the last few years, we have had a "Seder leaders' phone conference' shortly before Passover so that people who are leading a seder for the first time, or who want to get creative seder suggestions, can share and learn from others.  This year, we created a new web site with the materials being shared on the conference call; you can access it at http://sg.sg/hoboken_seder_conference_call.  Check it out!  We expect to post the audio recording of the conference call soon, featuring the USH educators team:  Preschool director Rachelle Grossman, Learning Center director Grace Gurman-Chan, together with me.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Seder trivia game....

At our synagogue's congregational seders for the last few years, we have played the following game:  I have collected stories of unusual Pesach customs, and shared three such stories with the community:  two true stories, and one fictional story.  Participants then have to guess which two stories are true and which one is false.   (If you listen to Wait, wait, don't tell me, you get the idea, except that only one story is false.)

Here are the stories from three years ago.  Do you know which one is false?

(This first set of stories is relatively easy. I'll post a harder set of stories next week.)


Story #1



You have probably heard of Elijah’s Cup – the custom of pouring a special cup of wine for Elijah at the seder, and then opening the door for Elijah to welcome him symbolically to every Pesach Seder.

Well, there are some Jewish communities that take this idea of a symbolic guest to somewhat of an extreme.

In the Jewish community of Djerba, an island off the coast of Tunisia, in North Africa, which historically had a very large Jewish community, the custom was to set an entire place setting for Elijah – complete with a plate, silverware, cups, napkins, and a chair at the table.  (Some families would put a ribbon across the chair of Elijah just to remind everyone else that they shouldn’t sit there.)  Elijah’s plate would be served a full helping of each course of the Seder meal.

People in the United States sometimes joke that Elijah drinks so much wine every seder night, on his journeys from seder to seder around the world, that he must be pretty sloshed by the end of the night.

In Djerba, though, the joke was that Elijah eats so much on the seder night, going from house to house, that he wouldn’t need to eat anything else over the entire next year.



Story #2

What are you supposed to dip in the salt water towards the beginning of the seder?   Parsley?  Celery?  Perhaps a piece of boiled potato?    Well, the Jews of the holy city of Elizabeth, New Jersey, have an unusual custom for the Karpas section of the seder.

It happened when a new rabbi arrived in Elizabeth, and he was horrified to realize that the people there were not aware of the correct blessings to be recited over fruits and vegetables in Jewish tradition.

There’s a special blessing that is traditionally recited over fruit that grows on trees - borei pri ha-etz - and a DIFFERENT blessing is recited over vegetables that grow in the ground - borei pri ha-adamah.

But there are certain exceptions to this rule.  And one of those exceptions is bananas.  The proper blessing for bananas in Jewish tradition is ‘borei pri ha-adamah,’ because Jewish tradition classifies bananas as growing in the ground (maintaining that “banana trees” aren’t really trees).

But this new rabbi saw that the people in Elizabeth didn’t know about this exception, and they said the incorrect blessing over bananas – borei pri ha-etz.

The rabbi tore his hair out about how to convey to his community that the right blessing for bananas is ‘borei pri ha-adamah.’

Until he realized:  he should simply announce that next year, EVERYONE in Elizabeth should use BANANAS for Karpas at the seder.  And the memory of eating bananas dipped in salt water at the seder would be sufficiently powerful and uncomfortable in everyone’s mind that they would never again forget that in Jewish tradition, the banana is a vegetable, not a fruit, and that the proper blessing is ‘borei pri ha-adamah.’

And every Jewish household in Elizabeth that year used bananas for Karpas at the seder – and some Elizabethans continue to do so each year.  Why? – Because their rabbi told them to.

Now THAT’S a community that knows how to respect its rabbi….






Story #3

What would happen if you were sitting at a serious and dignified seder, and suddenly, in the middle of singing Dayyeinu, a food fight breaks out?

Well, this is the custom of the Jews of Iran, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, and some other regions.  During Dayyeinu, it is customary to take scallions or green onions, and hold them at the ends and whip other people with them.

In some households, a true free-for-all breaks out as everyone is running around the house, flinging their onions at everyone else, in rhythm with the music of “Dayyeinu.”

Some say it is a dramatization of the Egyptian taskmasters whipping the Israelite slaves.  Others say it is simply a way to make the seder experience more fun for people of all ages.

If you go to a seder where they have this custom, just be grateful that the custom is to use scallions and not rotten tomatoes.






(answer:










Story #1 is false; stories #2 and #3 are true.)