What is a traditional Passover? Is there any such thing? Certainly, there are many components of the Passover Seder common to all Jews. Take, for example (out of many), making charoset. Not only do Jews from different parts of the world use different charoset recipes, but even Jews from the same community often use different recipes.
Although Seders reflect the diversity of the Jewish people, some Jews have taken creative license to make their Seders unique, creating new traditions from an ancient celebration. Here are a few examples of creative Passover traditions from members of the Milwaukee-area Jewish community.
Riddle me this
Micki Seinfeld, from Mequon, uses multiple types of Haggadahs at her Seders. But that’s not what gives her Seders a fun twist.
“We insert riddles in them,” she said. “The riddles come from family and friends and all have something to do with Passover. It adds a little humor.”
Here’s an example: Name two things you can never eat for breakfast on Passover. (The answer is at the end of this article.)
Seinfeld also sets the table with assorted plastic and rubber frogs. “Some have springs so they can hop,” she said, adding “the center pieces with flowers are either [made from] used matzo meal boxes or potato starch.”
Guests also get their own personal salad-sized Seder plate, replete with all the symbols. And as for inviting the stranger to the Seder, Seinfeld invites people from “a variety of different churches.”
One guest, a Catholic nun, isn’t a stranger at all because she’s a good friend — but her annual inclusion makes the Seinfeld Seder very diverse indeed.
Kid-friendly to the last drop
When Mequon resident Michael Altman was growing up, his family—like many American Jewish families—used the Maxwell House Haggadah. About 10 years ago Altman and his wife started hosting their own Seders. They continued to use “preprinted ones,” but Altman found them a bit problematic.
“To my mind, the Maxwell House or the other ones weren’t written in a way that was kid-friendly,” he said.
Specifically, he felt they were too long. So, in 2010, Altman wrote the “Altman Family Passover Haggadah” to appeal to small children’s short attention spans and big appetites. For example, by page 2 of the 10-page Haggadah, when explaining Karpas, Altman’s Haggadah asks:
“Everybody hungry? Good, but we’re only going to have a little green appetizer first. We dip the Karpas into some saltwater, which tastes like tears, and say …”
This way, hungry children get to nibble, knowing dinner is soon to come. And in the meantime, they’re regaled with a play with the adults at the table playing the roles of key figures from the Passover story, beginning with Abraham going to Moses.
“When the kids were smaller, they weren’t really involved in that section because it involved a lot of reading,” said Altman. “Now, the boys get to play the roles of Moses and Pharaoh.”
Curiously, perhaps to inspire young imaginations, Altman’s Haggadah attributes Rabbi Hillel for having created “the first sandwich,” adding that if one wants “to remember Hillel by making a matzah sandwich, you can do it now or during the meal.” (John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich — who is said to have invented the sandwich in the 1700s — might dispute this.)
The 2018 edition of the “Altman Family Passover Haggadah” is a little bit longer and geared toward a more mature audience, yet it remains much more succinct than traditional Haggadahs, which pleases everybody.
“The Haggadah has been received well,” said Altman. “It’s not too long, which is always good because everybody is always telling me the food is ready.”
Jodie Hirsh, of Shorewood, is a fount of knowledge about Seder traditions from around the world, incorporating interesting traditions into his own Seders until he stopped hosting them because they became too large — up to 50 guests.
“I thought, ‘I’d much rather be a bystander and a resource,’” he said.
Hirsh said he has “lived all over,” which helped him develop a passion for exploring different types of Seders.
“I’ve lived in Hong Kong. Israel off and on over the years. I make it a point to get invited to a Syrian Seder, or a Yemenite Seder, and Moroccan Seder. Seders in which they do it in Arabic and sing songs in Ladino.”
Hirsh broke down the primary Seder differences into two categories: what people do and what people eat.
“For example,” he said. “I was at an Iranian Seder and they don’t eat matzah balls — it’s just an Iranian thing. Meanwhile, they have soup with chickpeas, which Ashkenazim wouldn’t touch.”
Whereas Jews traditionally leave the door open for the prophet Elijah, Hirsh said Jews with Kurdish roots take it a step further.
“When you open the door, there is a costumed weary traveler waiting for you at the door,” he said. “The costumed traveler has a kind of pillowcase over their shoulder. You say, ‘All who are hungry come in to eat.’ So, you invite the stranger in, but it’s somebody you know.”
Some people like to dress in nice clothes to a Seder. Hirsh dresses up, too — but he wears sandals, a robe and a keffiyeh. He also likes to include Arabic phrases during the ceremony, which he learned from attending a Syrian Seder.
“Sometimes I won’t tell people I’m doing this,” he said. “Or sometimes I’ll have somebody else wear the costume. I teach them what to say. I’m kind of the master of ceremonies.”
Other traditions that Hirsh learned about and that might seem curious to American Jews of Ashkenazi descent include:
- Whipping each other with scallions when singing “Dayenu” (Iranian/Persian).
- Making a watery charoset with hot peppers (Yemenite); or that contains poppy seeds (Italian); or with lemon rind and pine nuts (Ethiopian).
- Eating matzah balls stuffed with meat or prune (Ashkenazi Jews of Hong Kong).
- A father tying the afikomen bag in a way so it hangs over the back of the eldest son, and then having the children try to surreptitiously untie the bag and steal it (Syrian).
Family and friends
Passover is celebrated in countless ways. But Seinfeld identified what every Passover Seders the world over have in common: “Being together with family and friends.”
And, by the way, here’s the answer to Seinfeld’s riddle: Lunch and dinner.