Seder veterans give advice for a low-stress first seder.
Having a seder for the first time may be a daunting prospect. It’s a home service combined with an elaborate multi-course meal with foods that help tell the Passover story. And everyone has strong memories of their family seders with special foods and traditions, so there seems to be a high bar for seder success.
“We have a holiday every week — Shabbat — but it doesn’t take too much — a Kiddush cup and candlesticks. For Passover, there is a special plate with things you don’t see often — like a shank bone,” says Annabel Cohen, owner of catering firm Annabel Cooks Detroit.
But Cohen and other veteran seder hosts — women who routinely have seders for seven to 45 people — offer reassurance and guidelines to make it workable for first-time hosts and hostesses. They all agree that advance planning and organization are essential whether you are having a small family seder or a larger celebration with many guests. “People have all kinds of entertaining anxiety. You have to plan,” Cohen says.
ORGANIZATION IS KEY
Thinking ahead is especially important for first-time hosts who may not have enough basic items such as tables and chairs. Extra furniture can be rented, if necessary, although friends and relatives will likely be glad to lend from their stock. It may seem obvious to hold the seder in the dining room; but, in fact, a family room or living room may provide more space when furniture is moved.
Passover may be a good time to stock up on inexpensive plates, silverware and glasses. Borrowing items from family members and friends may also be an option. Some people use disposable pieces, which are sturdier and much more attractive than the old-fashioned paper places, for certain courses. “You can make your own seder plate. You don’t have to have Lenox,” Cohen adds.
“Make lists and buy things ahead,” recommends Cheryl Rasansky of West Bloomfield, who hosts very popular annual seders for 45 people, cooking everything herself. Buying non-perishables and things that can be frozen ahead save effort during the crunch period and allow for stocking up on potential sale items. Rasansky makes and freezes meatball appetizers weeks ahead of Passover. Others make and freeze chicken soup in advance.
Especially for a first seder, hosts shouldn’t feel obligated to do everything themselves, and in many families, it is a tradition for guests to bring a dish, keeping in mind adherence to kashrut. Ask guests to make something and specify the number who will attend — both children and adults — to ensure appropriate quantities. Those who bring food often bring way too much because they are uncertain what others are cooking. Find out in advance if any vegetarians or vegans will participate so that there will be appropriate food for them.
Former Detroiter Dale Cohodes (Canchester), who has hosted many kosher seders for 30 guests, suggests being specific if you want a certain menu. “Don’t just ask for a green vegetable — specify asparagus or green beans. If children will be there, have raw vegetables for them to nibble on,” she advises.
Also, consider purchasing some prepared Passover foods from a caterer. Both kosher and non-kosher — but traditional — seder menu options are available in the Detroit area.
For those guests who don’t cook but want to contribute in some way, suggest that they bring candy, wine or flowers. In one family, the elderly grandmother who no longer cooked much herself traditionally paid for an outside person to help with dishes — a great help to the host.
CHOOSING A MENU
A seder will automatically include charoset, chopped eggs and other foods symbolic of the Passover story. For the non-ceremonial foods, many families prefer traditional gefilte fish, chicken soup, brisket and roast chicken, but these are not requirements. “Moses didn’t eat brisket in the desert, and you don’t have to have the same menu both nights,” Cohen says. Rasansky serves chicken marsala instead of the usual roast chicken.
However, children often want what is familiar. Southfield residents Chaya and Joey Selesny have hosted seders for their immediate family of seven for several years once her mother-in-law could no longer do it. While their original intent was to include friends, they were already committed to their own family seders, so the Selesnys designed a seder specifically for their five children from ages 6 to 18. “I make the things that my children like, which are quite traditional,” she says.
THE HAGGADAH AND PASSOVER SERVICE
The Haggadah and Passover service have evolved to include more individualized options. Some families write their own Haggadah or choose a specialized one available online. A theme may be incorporated — social justice or the role of women in Judaism.
Selesny explains that her husband Joey was “very focused on engaging all of the kids, so he ordered all kinds of prizes for answering questions. Everyone who spoke or answered a question got a prize,” she explains. This worked well and will be repeated this year.
Finally, it’s a good idea to keep a few records for next year’s seder. Cohodes recommends saving your guest list and making notes about the popularity of particular recipes. That way you can build on your success.