A goy’s guide to the Passover Seder

Originally published Apr 6, 2012

The Name Inspector is about more than just names–he considers himself a sort of cultural ambassador. So he’s setting aside his name inspecting cap for a moment to perform a timely public service.

If you Gentiles out there have played your cards right, you may have received an invitation to attend your first Passover Seder this year. Don’t panic! With a little preparation, you can make it through this important ritual without starving or making a complete fool of yourself. Since The Name Inspector’s wife and kids are Jewish, he has a sort of standing invitation to Passover, and he’s learned a thing or two. He’s here to help you.

Incidentally, The Name Inspector has Scandinavian ancestry, and he and his wife have discovered interesting parallels between their peoples. For example, there’s a shared love of cured and smoked fish. Also, a tendency to make things out of potatoes and put sweet stuff on top. For this reason The Name Inspector is mystified by his wife’s refusal to appreciate lefse.

There are differences as well, of course. For example, judging from the wife’s family, it doesn’t seem like Jews are into boats as much as Scandinavians are. Also, Jews have a tradition of telling jokes that are funny.

Anyway, the first thing you need to know about Seder is that there’s going to be dinner,  it’s going to take a really long time, and the host is going to tell you when you’re allowed to eat each thing. It will make you feel like a kid again, but not necessarily in a good way. There will be lots of stories, but no funny ones.

At least there will be plenty of wine, you’ll be relieved to know. But you’re going to have to wait forever before you can start drinking it. If your hosts serve a traditional kosher wine, once you finally do get a taste of it you’ll understand why no one seemed like they were in much of a hurry to drink. The Name Inspector recommends having cocktail hour at home before the Seder if possible.

Come to think of it, you might want to have some appetizers beforehand as well. The food at a Seder is chosen mainly for its symbolism. As you surely know, Jews have had some pretty tough times throughout history, and they have the culinary traditions to prove it. For example, at one point during dinner you might be invited to dip some parsley in a bowl of salt water and eat it. Now, the polite thing is to go along with this, but don’t get your hopes up flavor-wise. It’s meant to represent the bitterness of the Jewish experience and the tears of the Jews, and it does a pretty good job.

Then theres’ the bread, called matzo, which is like a big cracker. Any kind of puffy bread is a faux pas during Passover, so don’t try to demonstrate your cultural savvy by showing up with a bag of bagels.

The thing you’re really going to want to get your hands on is the charoset, a tasty mixture of chopped fruits and nuts and spices, like something you’d bake into cinnamon buns. There’s even a little wine in there. If you’re really lucky, your Seder will have a Sephardic touch, and the charoset will have dates in it. Matzo by itself isn’t much, but matzo with Sephardic charoset is delicious.

The funnest part of Seder is when the little kids get to ask four questions about why Passover is special, and also at the end when they have a treasure hunt. All they find is some of the big cracker, but they seem to enjoy it. And then they get some money.

So there you have it! You’re now a veritable Passover Seder expert. Oh, one other thing: at the end, people will say something about seeing you next year in Jerusalem. It’s confusing, but just smile and play along–they won’t actually mean it literally.

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