Sunday, April 24, 2011

In every generation - Maggid 2.0 at our Seder

This year we tried something a little different at our Seder.  We were so pleased with the result that I wanted to share it here - an idea to store away for next year.  It won't work for everyone - certainly not for Jews who do not use additional power or technology on the festivals - but that still leaves a lot of Jews who might want to try something new.

We began our Seder fairly conventionally, following our Haggadah through the festival candle-lighting, first cup of wine, and so on, through to Yachatz - the breaking of the matzah.  But when we arrived at the heart of the haggadah (and the longest section) - Maggid - telling the story, we put down the haggadah.  First, we performed what has become a family ritual over the years - the Passover story in rap, with costumes and movement.  That story in its entirety, from Moses' birth to the crossing of the Sea, is rather difficult to find in a traditional haggadah, but we like to cover the basics.

What we do find in the haggadah is a confusing mix of conversations from generations ago - Rabbis talking all through the night, fantasies about multiplications of plagues, four questions (some of which are never answered in the text of the haggadah), four children who respond to the whole Seder experience in different ways, and so on.  Its a rather strange hodge-podge if you think about it.  I've always regarded it as something of a 'teacher's manual' - it gives you ideas of how to engage in the storytelling, but it doesn't work so well as the storytelling itself.

If it is the case that, 'in every generation' we must have an experience that gets us back in touch with what it means to experience slavery and what it means to seek and gain freedom, then how might we tell that story today?  This year, we used visuals and video to help us access that story in ways that deeply tapped into our own experiences and understanding, challenging us, moving us, and inspiring us.
We began with a video of a new song out of Israel, entitled 'Out of Egypt', by Alma Zohar.
She reminds us:
Don’t you know that each day and in every age,
one and all must see himself as though having escaped Egypt
So he won’t forget how he fled, how he was beaten, bled, left dead
How he called out to the heavens 

The song concludes:
There’s always war in Africa
What luck that it’s so far away
We don’t have to see or hear the screams

The video can be viewed here.  
This was how we began to think about Avadim Hayinu - we were slaves, but now we are free.  If the spiritual message here is to remember in order to empathize, in order to be moved to action when we remember what slavery was like, we cannot simply ritually recite the words, but must look at the world we live in today.  Zohar's video powerfully engages us.  The words at the end of the youtube tell us:
Since 2003, an estimated 10,000 immigrants from various African countries have crossed into Israel.
Some 600 refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan have been granted temporary resident status to be renewed every year, though not official refugee status. Another 2000 refugees from the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia have been granted temporary resident status on humanitarian grounds.
In 2007, Israel deported 48 refugees back to Egypt after they succeeded in crossing the border, of which twenty were deported back to Sudan by Egyptian authorities.

An Israeli looking for something more from her people and her country.

From here, we looked at the 'Pharaohs of today'.  These are included in the video of the powerpoint presentation below.  As we followed the slides, the storytelling took us from reflecting on some of the worst dictators and their oppression of their people, to a call on each of us to reflect and discuss how we use our power.  The image of the scallion and the staff represent enslavement and freedom-fighting - that which we do to others, and that which we do to ourselves.  Why the scallion?  Because it is a Sephardi Jewish tradition to take a scallion and beat the person next to you with it when telling the story of enslavement and hard labor in the Pesach story.

Just as each of us has the ability to use our power to oppress or to free, so each of us contains something of each of the four children.  A small selection of the images used to illustrate these children in haggadot over the ages gave us an entree to discussing what these had to teach us.

Then we moved to the moment of freedom.  With several artist's renderings of the crossing of the Sea, we pondered whether the experience was one that was awesome, fantastical, celebratory... its not so easy to leave behind the known for the unknown, however bad it might have been.  The emotions that accompany us are complex.

Finally, many of our guests brought their own image of freedom.  The range was diverse - abstract, specific, political, inspiring, peaceful, spiritual... each image birthed a story or description - just a minute or two each, to enable us to engage with the deeper meaning and experience of freedom.
All of these sections are reflected in the video below:
One contribution was in the form of a video:

In truth, time did not allow us to discuss each section equally fully - we could easily have been like the Rabbis of old, up all night, to really do justice to this much material.  But we certainly had one of the more meaningful experiences of engaging with the Passover story that I can remember.

We closed out the section with a couple of videos that have done the rounds this year and in past years - The Fountainheads 'Dayenu', and Michelle Citrin's wonderful '20 things to do with Matzah'.

Our Seder is conducted in our living room space and not seated at tables, so the logistics of this way of doing Maggid were relatively simple - a laptop plugged into a projector pointing at the wall.  It might easily have been done by plugging into a flat-screen TV.

But even a 'low-tech' version of this mode - photocopies or photos of images passed around a table - would achieve a similar result; like the chalk pictures on the pavement in the movie 'Mary Poppins', they provide a portal and, when we jump right in, these images offer a different way of accessing the journey from slavery to freedom.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Monday, April 11, 2011

Top tips for an engaging Seder

I've led or co-led several workshops or conversations with parents over this past week on ways of engaging children and adults alike in the Passover Seder experience.  The following is not a comprehensive list; rather, a sharing of some of the top tips that I have found excite parents and children when we introduce these possibilities to Seder night.  Keeping with the Passover format, here are 4 suggestions:

1) Involving children in the preparations.  Building the anticipation by having our children prepare some things for Seder night is key.  This can include more traditional tasks, like helping to make the charoset, and searching for the last pieces of chametz (bread, cake, etc.) that a parent has hidden on the last morning before Seder with a feather (bedikat chametz).  But it can also include preparing some acting of the story, songs, decorating pillow covers (thanks Rabbi Nicole Wilson-Spiro, who runs our Young Families Chavurah, for this one), matzah covers, place settings etc.  If you clean out your kitchen but don't empty every cupboard, have the kids design the 'Chametz - Keep Out!' and 'Kosher for Pesach' signs to put on the cupboard doors.

2) Logistics and lay-out.  This is one of the most overlooked elements of the Seder but one that I have come to appreciate as crucial.  While not every home has the space to accommodate some creativity in this department, we have found that sitting on sofas, cushions and chairs in concentric circles around a coffee table in a living room to be much more conducive, at least for the pre-meal part of the Seder, than sitting still around a formally-laid table.  Young children can get up and move around more easily without being a distraction, and the atmosphere engenders more conversation and interaction between the adults too.  At our Seder we often hang colorful fabrics in the room to create the feeling of sitting under a tent.  In previous years, we've moved to tables in another room for the meal, but this year we'll be using our dining room table as the buffet table, and will continue the informal feel as we eat in this more informal setting too.

3) While some observe the tradition of reading from the beginning to the end of the Haggadah, I regard it as more of a teacher's manual.  There are steps - 15 of them to be precise, listed at the beginning of most haggadot, which make up the Seder - the order - of the service.  Most of these steps are short (washing hands, dipping karpas into salt water, breaking the matzah and hiding the afikoman, etc.)  The largest section is Maggid - telling the story.  In this section we find the debates and conversations of several generations of Rabbis recorded.  But for the story to come alive for us so that, as we are commanded, we experience the Exodus as if we ourselves left Egypt, we have to find our own way to tell and respond to the story.
- That might mean acting it out (have the children walk around the room with sacks over their shoulders while you sing; when the music stops, ask them a question: Who are you? Where are you going? What are you carrying? What will you eat? etc.).
- You might use songs to tell the story.
- You might have the children ask questions (not just recite the Ma Nishtanah, which are just your starters for 4, not meant to be the totality of questions for the whole night!)
- You might ask guests to bring their symbols of Freedom for a second Seder plate, to be shared during the course of the evening (thank you to Rabbi Phyllis Berman, from whom I learned this one).
- When it comes to the praises we sing to celebrate our freedom, you might get up and dance!  With fabric, you might 'split the sea' for people to pass through as they sing and celebrate.
- For an adult crowd, you might seek out challenging contemporary readings on themes of freedom to discuss around the table (see for an amazing selection of potential readings).

4) Finally, I really recommend doing some of the Seder after the meal.  Traditionally there is still the Grace after Meals, more praises, two cups of wine, and Elijah's cup to go, plus some closing songs.  I know that many families skip the post-meal Seder, but there is something powerful and pleasureable about taking even 15 minutes to offer thanks and close with some fun songs (the traditional ones like Chad Gad Ya, or some contemporary fun songs set to familiar tunes - see here, for example).

There are many more links, and some fun Passover youtube videos, as well as more information and recipes, at Congregation B'nai Israel's Passover Page.

Have some great ideas for the Passover Seder that you'd like to share with others?  Please add them to the comments section here!

Many blessings for a wonderful, engaging, meaningful Passover!
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz