Every year, after each Passover Seder, I find myself analyzing the experience; heck, it’s the most widely celebrated and observed Jewish holidays of them all. And so, my questioning begins… Was it too long or too short? Was it boring or engaging? Was the food same-old-same-old or did we try something new? Did the kids actively participate or did the adults take over and dominate? Were old traditions perpetuated or were new ones created? Were participants uninterested or did they learn or think about things in a new ways? Is it worth repeating next year?
I then extend my critiquing to the performance of the leaders of Seders (ours and others’.) Did they understand – and live up to – the important role they played in the overall experience? After all, the Seder is designed to be an elaborate educational tool whose objective is to teach children – and “remind” adults – of how God took the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. It is “packaged” to include a variety of components (i.e. specific prayers, various readings, different food groups and menu items, “networking” time, songs, and several ritual objects and activities) with the aim of actively and personally involving all of the attendees in some form or fashion. So, I can’t help but ask, did the Seder leaders consciously develop a “lesson plan” and utilize various techniques to make the event engaging and meaningful to each and every participant? Did they make notes or reflect back on what worked well and what didn’t so that next year’s experience will be even more impactful? Should the leader even lead again next year?
I remember the many, many years of my youth when my grandfather was the only Seder leader. He sat at the head of the table, stared down at the Haggadah he held in his hands, and mumbled through the entire thing in quiet monotone. The occasional song would perk things up, but the overall experience was meh or blah – and certainly not educational. Poor Zaydie wasn’t an educator, didn’t have ideas or suggestions on how to do things differently (or the awareness that he should!), and the resources we have today simply didn’t exist then. So, we shouldn’t have excuses today, right?
The Haggadah, in an attempt to explain the types of people with whom we interact and must teach, offers a scenario of a father and his Four Sons. While the father represents a teacher, each son depicts a type of student with a particular personality and questioning style. Hence we are introduced to the Wicked one who pushes the boundaries and challenges the status quo; the Wise one who wants to understand and follow the specific rules, practices, and laws; the Simple one who is only capable of grasping basic and general ideas; and the one who does not even know what to ask at all. These types of children certainly challenge us to become better and more dynamic parents. But, how does the Seder leader (a.k.a the father) adapt the experience of the Seder (without frustration or judgment) to all types of questioners and learners who may be present?
It’s not easy to lead a diverse group in general, and the situation becomes more challenging when adults, with their own sets of expectations, are around the Seder table as well.
Being brutally honest, as a child I was and probably still am the Wicked one. Maybe it’s because I’m a first-born; maybe it’s because as Jews we are taught to question (a practice that I’ve always embraced); maybe it’s simply because I don’t want to blindly accept things “just because” or because “that’s the way it’s always been.” But, in my role as a parent or teacher, I’ve worked hard to meet my kids and students where they are to ignite their development and growth. I encourage their questions and help them find their own answers; the more first-hand experiences the better. To this end, I’ve been conscious of engaging them in ways that reflect their age, knowledge base, and learning style. In my opinion, this is the only way a learning experience will truly succeed.
Truth be told, I’ve never led a Seder. And, I do understand that critiquing a Seder is easier than constructing and implementing a successful one. But I also know that simply following along in the Haggadah isn’t enough to create a meaningful and relatable experience. So, this “arm chair quarterback” promises to become more engaged next year in creating family Seders that we’ll all be eager to repeat in years to come.
(For the record, my father led our Seder this year. He did a good job trying to include and encourage participation from everyone. But, I do have some suggestions for him for next year…)