How to Attend a Seder as a Non-Jew

How to Attend a Seder as a Non-Jew
Photo: David Cohen 156, Shutterstock

This Friday and Saturday are the beginning of Passover, the eight-day holiday celebrating the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt. Its beginning is marked in Jewish households with a Seder, a ritual meal in which the story of the the Exodus is told. Once nearly exclusively observed by Jews, Seders are becoming more and more secular, with tons of gentiles attending.

If you’ve been invited to your first Seder, it could present some unique challenges to even the most seasoned dinner-party guest. Here’s what you need to know before you show up.

Should a non-Jew even accept an invitation to a Seder?

In most cases my answer is a wholehearted “yes!” Seders are awesome! But there are exceptions. There are lots of different varieties of Jewish people, and there is debate among more traditional Jews as to the “rules” of gentiles attending a Seder. There are arguments about cultural appropriation as well.

I don’t expect you’ll be invited to an orthodox Seder as a non-Jew, unless you’re related to someone there by marriage. If so, I’d make sure you know what you’re walking into by talking to your spouse about how you’ll fit into their family’s expression of Judaism.

For the most part, though, if your Jewish friend invites you to a Seder, they’re probably reformed Jews, and regard the Seder as an experience that they’d like to share. If you have any doubts, ask.

What to expect on the first night of Passover

The Seder is not a dinner party with special foods thrown in. It’s part meal, part religious ritual in which guests don’t just listen to the story of the Jews’ escape from slavery, but are encouraged to relive it and to consider the lessons of Exodus in terms of their own experience and life.

Although the rituals are specifically Jewish, the story of Passover contains powerful themes like oppression, slavery, liberation, and faith, that are universal. It’s a compelling story with something for everyone. If you like religion, there’s a ton of it. If you’re a fan of horror movies, the plagues Moses sent to the Pharaoh are gruesomely delightful — boils, frogs raining from the sky, smiting of the first-born, etc.

Every household does their Seder differently. In some, the story of the Exodus is told through a ponderous recitation of the Haggadah (the text that explains the order of the meal); in others, it’s a much more casual affair. The first Seder I ever attended involved a bunch of 22 year-olds around a coffee table in a crappy apartment. We substituted marijuana for the “bitter herb” and ended up ditching the Haggadah and discussing the nature of slavery and freedom while we ate store-bought Matzah ball soup. What I’m saying is, ask your host about the nature of the Seder before you go.

Dress appropriately

There’s no official dress code, so ask your host about the attire if you’re not sure — just like you would for any dinner party.

Show up on time

Because a Seder involves reading and ritual, it’s really bad form to show up late. You don’t want to barge in in the middle of the story.

Don’t show up hungry

It’s a dinner party, but there might be a bit of a wait before you eat. There’s a lot of learning about Jewish history and philosophy before you all tuck into the brisket, so be ready.

Bring an appropriate gift

Do not show up with baked goods as gift for a Seder dinner — and nothing that contains yeast or flour. Do not show up with ham and cheese salad. These are traif. Stay on the safe side and bring flowers.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Pay for the parking; you’re going to be there for a while. This is not a shovel-down-your-food-and-go-watch-the-game situation like Thanksgiving — Seder can last up to four hours. It can be an awesome, unique, and moving evening in which you become part of a tradition that’s been roughly the same for thousands of years, but it’s still a long-arse dinner.

You may get drunk

Drinking wine isn’t just allowed during a Seder, it’s encouraged by God. The Haggadah instructs guests to drink four glasses of wine throughout the evening, and two of them are consumed before the meal is even begun, so you’ll probably get drunk. L’Chaim! You can take sips of wine if you want to avoid this for some reason, or substitute grape juice.

Do not eat the food on the centrepiece

Part of the whole Seder thing involves a specific arrangements of different foods in a centrepiece. These are not for eating, no matter how appetizing they look.

You might be asked to read aloud

Depending on how your particular Seder is conducted, you may be asked to read passages of the Haggadah aloud. Don’t worry too much if you can’t pronounce some of words. It happens to everyone.

Unusual foods you may consume

If you’re not an adventurous eater, know that the following foods will be consumed.

  • Matzah: This is unleavened bread. It’s bland, a little like a saltine.
  • Gefilte fish: This is a ground fish dish. In terms of tastiness, it ranges from jarred gefilte fish that most people regard as gross, to a surprisingly delicious side course, if prepared correctly.
  • Kosher wine: There is good kosher wine. And there is Manischewitz.
  • Maror: This is the “bitter herb” called for during the seder. It’s usually horseradish and is meant to remind us of the bitterness of slavery, but I find horseradish delicious, especially spread on some matzah. But people sometimes substitute romaine lettuce if the can’t take the spiciness.
  • Haroset: This sweet paste is made of fruits and nuts. It’s tasty af.
  • Unleavened: There will be no dinner rolls. No cake made with flour. Nothing with yeast. Deal.

Like the Wu-Tang Clan, Seder is for the children

Part of the Seder’s raison d’être is passing along the traditions of Judaism to younger generations, so a lot of the evening is specifically for children. The Haggadah has a special section for the youngest present to ask four questions with answers that explain how, “this night is different from all other nights.”

After the “serious” part of the meal is completed, many households sing traditional kids songs, including “Chad Gadya,” an awesome sing-along that features both the Angel of Death and a dog that is beaten with a stick. Metal!

Kids love finding the afikoman (matzah hidden by the host). I hate it because it reminds me of losing my car keys.

Then there’s Elijah. It’s tradition to set out a glass of wine for Elijah, in case the prophet who has been dead for 3,000 odd years shows up thirsty. He probably won’t, but some families will secretly drink Elijah’s wine and tell the kids they just missed him. Fooling children is the best.

The most important thing about being a non-Jew at a Seder

A Seder is about religion, but it’s not about your religion.

Participating in the rituals of another faith can bring up strong feelings among some people, but this is the worst time to talk about your beliefs or compare your religion (or lack thereof) with Judaism. Instead, be open-minded. If you can’t do that, at least keep your mouth shut. (That said, respectful questions are usually encouraged, as long as you’re not a jerk about it.)

Some uncle on his fourth glass of Manischewitz might make some deprecating jokes about Judaism. Do not join in. This is one of those “they can say that because they live it. You can’t because you don’t” situations. If you tend to have trouble reading a room, don’t show up at the Seder.

Parts of the Haggadah might rub you the wrong way (particularly if you are Egyptian) but remember to consider the context. A line like “Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you” might seem confrontational, but when you consider it comes from an enslaved people, the sentiment is understandable.

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