While more than 2 billion Christians around the world are moving through Lent toward Easter, the world’s millions of Jewish families have just finished Purim and are looking ahead to Passover at sunset on Monday April 18.
“Passover Seders—the ritual meals as Passover begins—are the most-attended Jewish religious events of the year, even more than the high holy days,” says Stuart Matlins, founder and head of Vermont-based Jewish Lights Publishing, the leading producer of inspirational Jewish books for general readers. Along with Matlins’ other imprint, SkyLight Paths Publishing, he has produced more than 500 books in the past quarter of a century.
In preparation for Passover 2011, Stuart has just released a major revision and expansion of David Arnow’s popular guide to “Creating Lively Passover Seders,” which you can order via Jewish Lights right now.
“This is a case where the cover of the book explains the purpose quite well,” Stuart says. “Right at the top we say: ‘No more boring Seders!’ And at the bottom we say, ‘A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts and Activities.’”
Our Jewish readers already understand the value of this publishing news—and may already own a copy of the smaller first edition. You’re wondering: I’ve got that first edition already on the shelf. How different is this second version? Stuart responds simply: “This isn’t a fake second edition. We had to update because the book includes lots of topical references that become dated over time. But we did more than update details. About 25 percent of what was in that first edition isn’t in the book anymore. And, we’ve added even more to replace that. So, this is now a bigger book. It’s been thoroughly revised and expanded. If you enjoyed the first one, you’ll want this new edition.”
Our non-Jewish readers may be wondering: What’s the point of all this? Isn’t a Seder just a series of short readings? The answer is: Hardly! This confusion arises because every year many non-Jews are invited to authentic Seders—however, millions of Americans have been exposed to “Christianized Seders,” shortened versions of the ritual meal that often radically reshape the conclusion of the ritual meal to point toward Jesus’ Last Supper. Today’s article isn’t the place to debate that controversial policy of Christianizing Passover customs—except to say: Even if you think you know Seder customs, you may not! This book is a fascinating overview of Seder themes.
What Makes a Truly Engaging Seder?
A memorable Seder in an observant Jewish home is a lively multi-course dinner full of readings that retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt—along with food-related symbols. For the children who are present, there are activities and songs to awaken their imagination. Then, the heart of the meal is a spirited discussion about the contemporary meaning of Jewish wisdom. The Passover Seder connects the vital dots of Jewish heritage across the millennia—and sends these sacred themes back out into the world through the next Jewish generation.
“The problem is that there are lots of boring Seders,” Stuart explains. “This should be a very special time to reconnect Jews with all that Judaism has to teach and offer. Unfortunately too many Seders are so boring that people don’t get that wonderful experience. The people planning the Seder very often are not well educated in Judaism and often they don’t really know what to do—other than prepare the food and read through the Passover ritual.
“The goal is to make the Seder interesting for everyone so that every person at the table becomes a full participant. What we’ve done with this book is provide people lots of choices—including ideas they can use to get people talking about social justice, the history of the Jewish people, great stories, and things you can discuss about your own relationship—or lack thereof—to belief in God.”
As a major publisher who travels widely promoting Jewish literacy, Stuart finds himself invited to many Seders each year. He and his wife have attended Seders around the world. Especially if they are traveling with younger family members, Stuart admits that he has grown bold in questioning his potential hosts. “I’ve been to Seders that were just deadly in some parts of the world. So, especially if we are traveling with someone, I now ask the host: ‘Let me be candid. Can you tell me what your Seder is like? If it’s boring, I don’t want to subject this young person to it.’”
That basic challenge faces countless families all around the world as Passover approaches. Stuart’s mission in this book—now newly expanded and updated—is to ensure that fewer and fewer families will have to sheepishly admit: “Sorry, our Seder is pretty boring. We don’t know what else to do.”
Says Stuart: “Now you have some good ideas.”
And remember: You can order “Creating Lively Passover Seders” from Jewish Lights right now.
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(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)