Open Seating

Strangers at the seder table.






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Publication: Jewish Exponent
Author: Snyder, Gail
Date published: April 7, 2011

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How many people would have the chutzpah to invite a well-known chef - and near-stranger - to their family Passover seder?

Norma Rosenthal, who has taught classes in Passover cooking and has a habit of inviting "strays" to her seders, thought nothing of extending an invitation to a chef she met briefly, right before Passover, at a food event in Seattle. The chef accepted Rosenthal's offer with delight.

The night of the seder, Rosenthal and her guests waited for the chef to arrive at the appointed hour. She failed to show. After waiting a half-hour more, Rosenthal decided to proceed without her new acquaintance. An hour later, the seder celebrants reached the part in the Haggadah in which the door is opened for the prophet Elijah - and got the surprise of their lives.

"When my husband got up and flung open the front door, the guests were stunned to see the missing chef framed in the doorway, clearly having nipped a bit of Passover wine on her way over," Rosenthal recalls. "She wove her way inside, sat down in the one empty chair as if nothing had ever happened and calmly picked up a Haggadah. Nobody said a word and my hubby calmly went on, although this was clearly not Elijah who had entered the room."

Despite the tipsy guest, Rosenthal continues to invite people she barely knows to her house in suburban Seattle for Passover. She says, "I know if I had nowhere to go, I would appreciate an invitation to be a part of someone's home celebration myself."

Inviting strangers to a family seder is not as unusual - or as dangerous - as one might think. Plenty of people take to heart the part of the seder that states "let all who are hungry come and eat."

These strangers may be friends of friends, the checker at the local supermarket or the person sitting next to them on an airplane. They may also be found by phoning a synagogue, university, military base or assisted-living facility to ask if someone knows of a Jewish person who doesn't have a seder to attend.

Today, it is even possible to find seder participants through Craigslist, the online community bulletin board best known as a place to buy and sell goods and find jobs. Eliza Slavet, who has lived in both Brooklyn and San Diego, advertised her seder in the general community section on Craigslist. Slavet likes to plan big seders that offer new interpretations of old rituals and stimulate conversation. She and some friends have written their own Haggadah, which they call "The Haggadah for the Wicked Child," an allusion to the wicked son mentioned in the Four Questions portion of the seder.

The first time she extended an invitation through Craigslist, she did so because she had just six confirmed guests one week before the holiday and wanted more.

In her Craigslist ad, Slavet described her Brooklyn seder and asked people who were interested in attending to send her an email explaining why they needed to attend a seder. A few hours later, her inbox had a dozen emails from people who wanted to come.

She phoned each of the respondents and, after talking to them, decided to issue invitations to all but one of the couples who responded.

One of her Craigslist guests had just moved to New York from Los Angeles and didn't know anybody in town. Several were interfaith couples and another guest was considering converting to Judaism.

Slavet ended up having a satisfying seder with six friends and 10 people who found her on Craigslist. The latter showed up bearing flowers, wine, charoset and honey cake.

"There's a limit to how many new friends you can gather to your seder table every year," Slavet says. "Craigslist makes it possible to always have new voices and new questions."

No matter where the strangers come from, having them at a family seder is a very Jewish thing to do on many levels. First, it is in keeping with the Torah: Jews are commanded to look after society's most vulnerable people - widows, orphans and strangers, for example - notes Rabbi Gary Pokras of Temple Judea of Bucks County in Doylestown. Second, when Jews relive the story of the Exodus and make it their own, it reaffirms their shared values, including the value of empathy.

Pokras says, "We remember that we were strangers [in Egypt], and what it was like to be strangers. That's what we were redeemed from." He points out that strangers can be taken advantage of and even enslaved as the Jews were in Egypt. And that, because of this experience, Jews go out of their way to help others who are strangers.

Third, there is the connection to the prophet Elijah, whose return is expected to occur on either Shabbat or Passover. According to legend, Elijah will appear dressed as a beggar in rags. "When we are willing to bring a stranger in rags into our home, then the Messiah will come," Pokras says.

Mark Segal has an open-door policy at his family seders in Cheltenham. Passover is one of Segal's favorite holidays, as it was for his late parents. Sometimes he and his wife, Zipporah, invite non-Jews to their seders, which Segal says poses a greater challenge, since non-Jews need more explanations. Every year, Segal writes a new Haggadah to make the seder more effective for his guests. A puppeteer by profession, he also enjoys incorporating props into his seders. For example, he has passed around a "freedom brick" on which he has written quotations about freedom and a "question hat" to which guests added their own queries to be answered.

At his seders, Segal tries to satisfy a more spiritual kind of hunger. For him, "inviting the hungry" means inviting people who are "hungry to learn and partake of the seder."

Of course, there are some risks associated with ushering strangers into one's home. As Slavet notes, inviting strangers to your home or visiting the home of a stranger requires mutual trust.

One of the people who has benefited from the kindness of strangers at Passover is Ellen Rittberg of Nassau, N. Y. One year, when she was traveling with her three young children through South Carolina, Rittberg phoned a synagogue near where she was staying to ask if there was a family who would invite her to their seder. Her family soon found themselves guests of a retired couple who shared tales of their lives with them. "With their thick Southern accents, front porch with a rocking chair on it and wonderful hospitality, it was beyond wonderful," Rittberg recalls.

Away at college and living in a dorm room, Erin Taylor, who grew up in Lower Merion, didn't exactly invite strangers into her home when she and her friends began a Passover tradition five years ago at Tufts University. But she and two Jewish friends did invite some strangers and nonJews to the common area of their dorm for a seder. The trio issued invitations via Facebook; only 10 of the 30 people who came to that first seder were Jewish.

Using Haggadot and a seder plate borrowed from home, the students did the best they could with limited cookware and an oven that had only one shelf. Still, their first seder was a hit.

"This was the first time I had done a seder without my family and been the leader of it. I got to see how much I knew," Taylor says. "I didn't have any assumptions about how much I would be able to teach people - or answer. I surprised myself. I've done it every year for my entire life and I have learned something."

Taylor found it somewhat difficult to create a seder that would be relevant to people who knew a lot about Judaism and those who knew little, and to reach agreement with her two Jewish friends. "I had to let go of the notion that the only way to teach people about Judaism is my way," she observes. And she also learned that it wasn't necessary for her to represent every aspect of Judaism to her non-Jewish guests.

During their first seder together, the Tufts University students got the biggest kick out of drinking the four cups of wine required in the seder. But as the years have gone by, and the seder moved off campus, Taylor says her expanded group of friends has gotten more serious. "We still drink wine and have fun and have a good time and joke about the probability that the Ten Plagues actually happened. But we have more of a spiritual conversation," Taylor says.

Author affiliation:

In recent years, Gail Snyder's family seders have been enriched by the presence of Korean graduate school student Bu Hyoung Lee and his wife, Yunjeong.

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