Seder traditions mark memories and fun

Seder traditions mark memories and fun

Melissa Rush and a copy of the Passover story that her grandmother wrote for the family 38 years ago	           
Photo provided by Melissa Rush
Melissa Rush and a copy of the Passover story that her grandmother wrote for the family 38 years ago Photo provided by Melissa Rush

Worf, son of Mogh, may not attend Daniel Seigel’s seder, but in the event that either Worf, his brother Kurn or any other Klingons happen to arrive in the South Hills this Passover, Seigel is ready to communicate. Last year, he read the four questions in Klingonese.

The “polyguttural” parlance is not the only tongue at Seigel’s seder. The four questions are done in “every language someone at the table knows,” said the Mt. Lebanon resident.

Citing several reasons for why the practice is employed, Seigel said that incorporating alternative languages “helps engage those who might not understand the Hebrew or even the English at the seder.” It also allows children to learn that “people all over the world are doing the same thing we are doing.” And for those children who know another language, this is a great way to “show off.” After all, said Seigel, “we are all about making it fun.”

Adding levity to an event recounting centuries of slavery and persecution is important, agreed several Pittsburghers.

“As a young girl — I’m now 72 — my two older sisters and I were given a bowl with a scoop of mashed potatoes. In the center, we ladled red beet borscht. Then we had a contest to see who could eat this without making the Red Sea breakthrough,” recalled Susan Kantrowitz, a Temple Emanuel of South Hills congregant.

“It was a lot of fun. My father was from Czechoslovakia, so I guess the beet borscht may have been his tradition,” she added.

Incorporating other cultures, perhaps from previous family residences, is a central part of many seders, explained Rabbi Seth Adelson, of Congregation Beth Shalom.

“At my previous position on Long Island, I had many congregants whose families had left Iran in the context of the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s. Perhaps most notable of the Persian seder customs is that during Dayenu, they whip each other with scallions.”

Oren Levy, a Squirrel Hill resident of Iranian Kurdish descent, remembers such seders and re-enacting the various portions of Dayenu.

Apart from these practices, the Persians had their own style of haroset, noted Adelson. The symbolic spread was “made by grinding up primarily dried fruits and nuts and seasoning with cardamom and cinnamon and other spices. We received a gift of this haroset from a congregant every year, and it added a pleasant variation to my own seder table.”

Rabbis Barbara and Ron Symons are not quite haroset connoisseurs, but they do include “a minimum of three kinds,” said Barbara Symons.  

Among those featured at their seder are Ashkenazi, Moroccan and Iranian harosets. But apart from being a blend on the bread of affliction, haroset can tell a story, she explained.

“A guest at our seder who was of Baghdadi descent, and brought a lot to our seder, would grind up walnuts and date syrup, but you would then mix it up on your plate” she said.

“And I always thought it was powerful because it goes back in some small way to the actual mixing of the bricks and mortar.”

Providing contemporary clues for intellectual transport is central to the seder experience, said Adelson.

Nearly four decades ago, “my grandmother rewrote the story of Passover in a way we kids could all understand,” said Melissa Rush, a congregant at Temple Emanuel.

“Every year, even though she’s usually ‘snow birding’ in Florida with my grandpa during Passover, we still read her story, taking turns. Everyone wants to update it, but I won’t let them. It’s an original and tells the story perfectly, especially with new husbands, wives and great-grandchildren around the table.”

At each seder, time passes and the people present change, agreed Renee Godin, of the South Hills. So before even beginning to read the Passover story, those at the Godins’ seder are asked to “sign their name and the year on the inside of the haggadah,” she explained.

“We thought what a fabulous nostalgic tradition and it allows us to start the sedar by reminiscing before the beautiful evening unfolds.”

Returning to the Klingonese questioner, some of the traditions at Seigel’s seder were discovered by pre-Passover study, others “we have acquired over the years,” he said.

But even among the new and old conventions, certain things are always the same.  

“We typically have 25 to 30 people, we run about five hours including the meal, and we never get the fifth question — when do we eat?”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at 

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