You too can be "Jew for a Day!"
March 24, 2010 7:47 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I have been invited to a friend's home for a housewarming / Passover celebration. As Christians, we don't know what to expect. Difficulty: we would also like to bring a thank-you / housewarming gift.

My wife has made a new friend at work who contracts a service to the office; I will call her Jane. Jane also works at a shul (synagogue) for a rather poor congregation. When they first met, Jane had a power supply for a laptop that had the power cord nearly severed and my wife offered my services to fix it. I soldered the wire and fixed it up; that was that. Jane then told us that the power supply belonged to the rabbi and he wanted to pay for the repair. I said no, to consider it a favor. The next thing we knew, we were invited to a bris (Brit Milah) for the rabbi's son. It was quite an experience. (Yes, it looked exactly like the picture in the Wikipedia article.)

Now, Jane has moved into a new apartment (she stayed with us a couple of nights to get away from a verbally abusive boyfriend). The rabbi has gone out of town for the holidays and Jane has invited us to her new apartment to celebrate Passover. As is her custom, she will have the event catered for the three of us. While we don't know the exact menu, we looked at the catering menu and it all looks pretty good, with the possible exception of the kishka (blood sausage).

As Christians, our first and only exposure to the Orthodox Jewish religion was attending the bris. That was quite an eye opener. The men and women were separated by a veiled curtain down the center of the main worship room. While my wife saw nothing of the ceremony, I inadvertently got a ring-side seat for the entire proceeding.

While looking forward to the Passover celebration, we would like to know if there is something we should know beforehand in the way of what to expect, what to specifically do, or customs that we should be aware of.

In addition, we would like to bring flowers and a housewarming gift of some sort. Would that be ill advised because of the holiday? Is there some type of gift that would be more appropriate than another? Is there something we should avoid? (I should say that we know better than to bring a home cooked food item.)
posted by Drasher to Religion & Philosophy (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you bring wine or anything else that one would consume make sure it's kosher...
posted by dfriedman at 7:48 AM on March 24, 2010

Furthermore, make sure it is not just kosher, but kosher for Passover. You go through a lot of wine at a Passover seder, so that may be an appropriate gift. Otherwise I think flowers would be a nice housewarming gift.
posted by rancidchickn at 7:51 AM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Seconding rancidchicken. I'd go with flowers myself - in a really nice vase or somesuch.
posted by jquinby at 7:54 AM on March 24, 2010

Passover's a hoot and probably my favorite Jewish holiday. This is probably because it's a big drinking holiday--you're supposed to drink at least four glasses of wine.

It's really, really not difficult to tell what wines are kosher for Passover. Just look at the label. Heck, if you order now, you can even have it delivered via the mail if that's legal in your state.

Flowers are nice, but really, I'd go for a good kosher wine here. Otherwise, whoever is leading the reading will pretty much hold your hand through the whole experience. You'll read from a book (haggadah) and eat certain foods in a certain order. Since this is an orthodox household, there might be additional readings/songs at the end of the meal. There will be no cutting of baby foreskins, so no worries about that.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:02 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

If there's a Jewish neighborhood in Detroit, there's probably a supermarket in that area that carries a lot of Passover foods, if that's what you want to bring. A call to the synagogue would probably get you the name of the market, if it exists.

Also, this.
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:06 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Blood is not kosher, ever, so the sausage would not be blood sausage but some kind of beef sausage with no blood.

Do not bring food to the seder. If you want to bring some sort of treat, you can bring her (purchased elsewhere, with the kosher for Passover symbols) chocolate dipped matzah, which is always nice. But it's just as easy to avoid food. If you do choose food, fruit is always kosher.

Flowers in a nice vase is always appropriate, or an attractive potted plant. Any normal non-food housewarming gift is okay.

Things to be aware of during a seder:
They are often very long. This may not be the case if it's just three of you, but they're still going to be long.
There are all sorts of rules about what you eat and drink when. Don't drink the wine at the beginning unless you see Jane do so, because the wine has significance during the seder. (Once you get to the meal proper, you can drink it all you like.)
posted by jeather at 8:09 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

At the seder, you're going to read from a prayer book and eat certain foods in order. Its a meal/ceremony combo. At my family's seders, they are really fun - we laugh at the mispronounciations and get into the singing. But, we're a mostly non-religious extended family, with a couple of non-jewish spouses and a couple religious jews thrown into the mix. I imagine that it'll be a more somber affair at the home of an orthodox jew, espeically if it's a small group.

My advice: don't bring food unless you buy it at a jewish grocery (its too easy to go wrong), and feel free to ask lots of questions. Its an interesting experience and your host/fellow guests will probably enjoy explaining things to you. Go with the flow, try a little bit of every food, since that's all that's required to be polite, and enjoy getting stuffed!

(Also, do not be afraid of the goopy brown stuff you eat at the beginning with matzah: its made of apples and nuts and cinnamon and wine, and its DELICIOUS.)
posted by Kololo at 8:12 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't bring food or wine. You don't know what hechsher she considers authoritative, so checking the markings isn't good enough. Flowers sound great.

I doubt the kishke has blood in it.
posted by grouse at 8:18 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Passover is fun because there's basically a big script for the whole thing and people are very welcoming [in my experience] of people unclear on the drill. It's an occasion for being with people you like, telling stories about the past [in Jewish history but also your own past Passover experiences] and engaging the children. If there aren't going to be children at the Seder, I'm less sure what the whole thing will be like, but Wikipedia sort of gives the main talking points and The Four Questions are often discussed (asked of the youngest child usually). People dress nice but not super fancy and all the ones I've been to have been pleasant, low-stress good food events.

Jane is aware that you're not part of her religious tradition and you don't have to pretend that you are in order to have a decent time at a seder. With very few exceptions that I know of [and unlike many Christian church services I've been to] you don't have to say prayers, sing songs about other people's gods or in any other way compromise your own religious feelings and beliefs in order to participate in this cultural tradition. It will be a very different situation than an Orthodix bris, to be certain.
posted by jessamyn at 8:18 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do not bring a gift wrapped in paper. If your friend is Orthodox, Shabbos (sabbath) rules will be in effect and depending on her level of observance she may be unable to tear paper.

Do not turn the bathroom light off, or any light. Lights are on timers or are left on during Shabbos, and also on the first two nights of Pesach.

The best gift you can bring is an open mind and a willingness to understand and observe the rituals of the night; that way, you're in for a treat and your friend gets to show you something that is a huge part of her life.

The only food item I know would go down well are kosher for Passover chocolate-covered macaroons. Those are available in almost any grocery store, but the problem is that those things sell out the moment they're put on the shelves. It shouldn't be a problem if you bring something that is un-opened, but not everyone agrees on what is and is not kosher, so it's hard to navigate that.

You can pick up a bottle of Baron Herzog at any wine store. I have Hasidic friends who will drink that brand, so I'm almost positive it's okay. Again, check to see that it's kosher for Passover.

Here's an article about buying kosher wines for Pesach.

That may honestly be much easier than bringing a food item.
posted by brina at 8:22 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ehhh. Be careful about flowers, too. Explanation here, but basically be sure that you arrive with the flowers in a vase with water before sunset, and that there's enough water to last through the holiday...

Sigh. Just buying a nice assortment of kosher for Passover treats at the grocery store might be the easiest way to go. There are lots of candies and cakes available.

As for the seder itself, just relax and go with the flow. As others have noted, it's very scripted, and a lot of it is in Hebrew. You won't be expected to know anything, and she will likely explain as she goes.
posted by charmcityblues at 8:23 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's really sweet that you're going to her for Passover. It's traditionally a big family holiday - and the one most observed by non-observant Jews - ie, even Jews who do nothing else will share some kind of Passover meal with their families.

If she's holding a seder for just herself and you, it might mean she has nowhere else to go (for at least one of the two nights of seders), and it's beautiful that you and your wife can help her celebrate that.

Passover has an interesting history in terms of connections between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Historically it was a pretty bad time for Jews - blood libels and anti-Jewish violence tended to increase around the time of Passover/Easter.

In North America though, it seems like it's one of the holidays that is most likely to represent a point of connection and outreach between communities. The nature of the observance - a big meal with flexible ritual designed to be accessible (especially to children) plus the resonance and commonality of the Exodus story that's shared with American Christianity, seems to have helped this be one of the holidays on which Jewish families are most likely to include their non-Jewish friends and family.

My Jewish Learning is a great site that makes no assumptions about anyone's background, nor is it associated with any particular strand of Judaism. You might want to skim through their Passover section just to have a little more background. In general it's a spring holiday commemorating the Exodus from Egypt and anticipating the giving of the Torah.

In general I would guess she's expecting to make a seder that's accessible to you (ie, English instead of all Hebrew). It's actually a pretty liturgically/ritually flexible holiday (relatively speaking), so depending on her level of comfort with that, what you see might or might not exactly correspond to what you might experience elsewhere.

Keep an open mind about the kishkes :)
posted by Salamandrous at 8:23 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Passover is the best holiday! Kishka is delicious! I've never been to an Orthodox seder before, but I'm sure your host will guide you through the entire process. It's a holiday specifically about celebrating our freedom and ability to endure the worst and come out on top, something that your friend will probably feel very in-tune with this year. So a lot of the traditions involve being sure that everyone is comfortable, happy, and understands what is going on. There's also a tradition of inviting friends and specifically friends who don't share your customs to the table on Passover, although I'm not sure if that's specific to Reform Judaism (how I was raised) or not. You may be offered a pillow, or asked to remove your shoes and get comfy - it's actually part of the whole seder ordeal, believe it or not.

As for gifts, I would stick to things that aren't food related. Jews who keep kosher usually have their own specific constraints and levels of conviction, so your friend probably has herself all set up nicely. Flowers are always nice, though, and if you wanted to get an additional gift of the more permanent variety, you have plenty of options. You could get a picture frame, be sure to snap a picture of your evening, and your wife could bring your friend the print at work. Potted plants are a classic housewarming gift, too. I always suggest, though, that you get some flowers for the evening and then send another gift along with a thank you note for being invited and having a lovely time. It might seem a little old fashioned, but you'll get a chance to see her home and scope out something she might need or want, and you'll certainly make a lasting, positive impression.

If you really want to bring a bottle of wine, I'd suggest finding the Jewish neighborhood of your city and popping into its liquor store or fanciest grocery store. There will undoubtedly be a segment of the store proclaiming "Kosher for Passover!" where you can safely find things for your friend, or ask an employee to help you out with suggestions.
posted by Mizu at 8:25 AM on March 24, 2010

Issuing the disclaimer that my perspective is based on being a lapsed Catholic attending one single seder at the house of a friend whose family was "culturally but not religiously" Jewish...

Seconding Jessamyn and kololo. In fact, especially seconding the asking questions -- there's actually a part of the "script" in the prayer book in which someone asks questions about what's going on.

The thrust behind the Seder is that it's a celebration of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, and so it's a special event. The "four questions" are sort of meant to be an excuse to re-tell the story about why it's a special event.

Some of the foods you eat are meant to be symbolic of when the Jews were enslaved in Egypt ("this here stands for the tears the Jews shed in Egypt, that there stands for the mortar they used when they built the pyramids..."), and other food is going to be just for the heck of it/family tradition kind of stuff (think like how just about EVERYONE has turkey on Thanksgiving, because that's the "universal" Thanksgiving tradition, but every family has their own recipe for stuffing, and some serve mashed potatoes while others serve boiled, some have that weird green bean casserole with fried onions on it and others don't, etc.). But even in families that don't keep kosher year-round, you may find that they're stricter about keeping kosher, so you may want to avoid bringing food just in case you inadvertently bring something they're not supposed to have in the house.

Actually, if you think of it as sort of like if you went to a Thanksgiving dinner where a little kid asks Grandpa why we're all eating turkey and we're all dressed up, and then Grandpa launches into the whole story about the pilgrims, it isn't too far off.

There's a book you may want to check out beforehand: "How To Be A Perfect Stranger." It's meant to help people understand if they're attending a religious service in a religion they don't belong to. Passover is a big deal, so I'm sure they'd have some more info in there.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:31 AM on March 24, 2010

i'm a lapsed catholic who has been to a couple of passover dinners hosted by jewish friends, because they like having their close friends come to passover, regardless of religion. the thanksgiving comparison is pretty spot-on.

men will probably be asked to wear some kind of head covering. if there aren't kids there, sometimes the four questions are asked by the (willing) person there who is least familiar with the jewish religion. the first question is "why is tonight different from all other nights," so if someone asks that question out of the context of the actual passover ritual and people laugh, that's why.

as for bringing something, i'd offer to bring wine and then ask if there's some particular brand she'd be okay with or if all 'kosher for passover' wines are okay. i'm not much of a wine drinker, but i am informed that "kosher for passover wine" and "really good wine" have little in common. a good wine shop might be able to suggest something that hits that overlap.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:46 AM on March 24, 2010

i'm not much of a wine drinker, but i am informed that "kosher for passover wine" and "really good wine" have little in common.

Having dated a Jewish woman for at least of couple of seders, I can inform you that this is not the case (at least if you drop the "really".) However, good wines that are kosher for Passover are in fact harder to find. If you know a good wine shop, try looking for wines imported from Israel; not all of these will be kosher for Passover, of course, but if you can find such a wine it'll be loads better than Maneschewitz.
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:07 AM on March 24, 2010

Tell your friend you think it's very cool that you're getting a chance to participate in this but you have no idea what to bring for such an occasion and you will feel really bad if you don't bring something. Say you want very specific help: what store can you go to? what kind of wine can you bring? what kind of wine does your friend guzzle on days like this? Maybe your friend's spouse has a favorite tipple?

If you walk into their house with a shitload of their favorite wine, all stamped and approved and taste-tested by Yahweh himself, you can't go wrong.
posted by pracowity at 9:08 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised no one has mentioned a nice artistic mezuzah, hamsah, or sabbath candles as a housewarming gift. It's not related to Pesach, but for a Jewish housewarming gift it's hard to find anything better...
posted by jckll at 9:15 AM on March 24, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions and advice. PLEASE feel free to add to this, it is all helpful and interesting.

Jane told us that she switches between being very strict (as to kosher rules) and not so much, according to her feelings at the moment and environment. We have gone to local restaurants with her and she had no major concern as to kitchen observances.

She has, at times because of late hours or whatnot, stayed with the rabbi (with his wife and eight children). She has told us that the rabbi and family are very kosher, having two refrigerators and kitchen setups to separate meat and dairy.

We have had some interesting discussions with her also. She says that the rabbi does not sleep with his wife, so the origin of the eight children is a discussion point. :)
My wife also told me that Jane "apologized" for "what the Jews did to Christ". My wife told her that she was grateful, otherwise we wouldn't be Christian. They kind of had some fun with that.

I am a lapsed Catholic also. My wife is Episcopalian. I grew up in a mostly Jewish neighborhood in New York City, but there wasn't much mutual celebration going on.

Salamandrous: Jane has told us that she has no family nearby at all. She does have a son who lives in Israel and she does not see him often. (OK, I'll keep an open mind about the kishkes.)
posted by Drasher at 9:43 AM on March 24, 2010

I would echo the issue with the hechsher. Depending on what branch of orthodoxy Jane follows, getting anything edible is pretty sketchy. I would stick to a kosher for Pesach wine (again, NOT just kosher wine) - Food and Wine magazine recommends "2005 Yarden Odem Chardonnay ($17) a leader in Israeli wine, produces this pear-scented Chardonnay with organically farmed grapes from the cool, northern region of Galilee. Excellent with chicken soups."

As for the seder, it is generally long but it is also pretty interesting. There is lots of "snacking" throughout the seder for symbolic purposes and your friend will let you know what to eat and when.

Enjoy yourself.
posted by Sophie1 at 9:47 AM on March 24, 2010

Ask Jane what she would like you to bring. She may need or want nothing.

A lot of TMI for a question that is very similar to what others have asked on this site before.
posted by pinky at 9:50 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Passover (Pesach) food is generally very filling and rich. Desserts tend towards overloading on chocolate, eggs, and butter. Bringing a nice fruit plate - nothing cut up, only things that are whole (clementines, grapes, apricots, strawberries, etc) - is a nice way to balance this out. If she's already got dessert covered, then it will still be nice for Jane to have lots of fruit to snack on.
posted by Anali at 10:41 AM on March 24, 2010

More to know about the seder:

Yes there is a lot of drinking but it is only done at certain times, same with eating.
Sometimes you raise your glass to toast, but are not allowed to drink and instead just put it back down, so watch the host verrrry carefully.
Usually there is also water that you can drink at any time.
Wine is only for blessings and at alotted times.

The meal happens almost at the very end of the seder (which usually goes 2 hours) so pre-eat a snack at your own house (then wash your hands and dont tell anyone) if you aren't going til dinnertime. You'll also be less tempted to eat the food on the table that you aren't allowed to touch yet.
If it is just her and you guys, she probably won't do as much of the ceremony (at least I wouldn't if it was me and 2 non-jews). Just watch her cues and ask questions.
posted by rmless at 11:28 AM on March 24, 2010

A friend of mine has a seder with her friends every year. She is Jewish but invites Jews and non-Jews alike. Generally we just bring Passover kosher wine (try to avoid Manischewitz if you can - that stuff is crazy sweet and sometimes thick and kinda gross). The only major no-no we've had so far is when one of her friends brought wine that wasn't Kosher and put it on the seder table. It was immediately removed and put in the fridge. So don't do that.
posted by wondermouse at 11:32 AM on March 24, 2010

Just a side note: the rabbi and his wife probably sleep in separate beds since they should not be sleeping together when she is having her period and a certain number days around that. That doesn't mean that they don't have sex (during the proper times of the month). In fact, it is considered a duty of husband to his wife that she is entitled to sex (he's not allowed to get so involved in study that he igonores or devalues the needs of the flesh). Then, of course there is the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" which they obviously have covered.
posted by metahawk at 11:43 AM on March 24, 2010

We're pretty lax, but I've found that you'll get no complaints if you bring yummy, in-season fruit for dessert. If it's fresh fruit with no preparation or processing, it'll be kosher. If it's cut, you need certification. (The knives have to be clean, and not used for dairy or meat if the fruit is to remain pareve. There's an additional check that the knives aren't used for bread so that the fruit remains kosher for Passover.)

And, if you're going for wine, Baron Herzog is a tasty option, and I can't picture anyone not accepting their kosher certification. (The winery is in Israel.)

As for a housewarming gift, don't bring one for the seder. Instead, arrange another visit so that you can bring it another time, or have Amazon deliver something on a different day. For religious families, it's somewhat inappropriate to involve non-related stuff like that into a holiday feast.

As for the seder itself: There's a lot of procedure ("seder" means "order"), so follow along with what the Haggadah says to do. After most of the reading and stuff is done, there's an instruction to "eat the festive meal". At that point, you just eat and drink and have a good time - including drinking more wine if you'd like. Once everyone's full, the last bit of seder reading is done. After that, some families like to break into song. YMMV. :)

Lastly, go ahead and try the kishka. Kosher kishka doesn't have blood in it. Blood is not kosher.
posted by Citrus at 11:57 AM on March 24, 2010

Adding - if she's in her "very strict" phase, don't bring fruit. Some fruits must be inspected for bugs. Here's an overview from StarK.
posted by Sophie1 at 1:33 PM on March 24, 2010

The seder is one of the best parts, I think, about Judaism, and frankly, it's the only thing I miss, and about this time of year, I miss it pretty badly. It's everything Thanksgiving is supposed to be, with genuine thanksgiving and rememberance of events past. It's a powerful unifier for a community, and it's pretty important to a lot of Jews to have a seder to go to. It's quite common, especially the first night of passover, to have a large dinner, with more than one family (or a lot of friends) present, the bigger, the better (my family once did the lion's share of the cooking and prep for the 200 family dinner at the shul, and it's a cherished memory). That your friend doesn't have a seder to go to is unfortunate, and you must mean a good deal to her that she'd like to spend it with you.

At the seder, since she knows you're not Jewish, she'll definitely let you know what to do and when. Follow her lead, and don't forget to ask questions. It's actually a part of the service. (I still know how to sing the first question, and I haven't been to a seder in about eight years) Have a great time, and enjoy the charoset (the chopped apple, walnut, cinammon and honey concoction).

As for gifts, you know her best, but depending on her sense of humor, there's always The Ten Plush Plagues. Other than that, maybe something homewarming (small appliance, nice serving plate) something that she might need in her new apartment, since, as mentioned above, food during passover is an unmarked landmine field for the uninitiated.

Enjoy. Next year in Jerusalem, and all.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:32 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could get a picture frame, be sure to snap a picture of your evening, and your wife could bring your friend the print at work

Don't do this. Using a camera is not permitted on shabbat and holidays and even if she's not in an observant phase right now, it really would be jarring to someone who's used to observing the holidays in a more traditional. way.
posted by Salamandrous at 8:36 AM on March 25, 2010

Response by poster: UPDATE

I would like to thank everyone for their wonderful and excellent suggestions and advice.

I am not marking a "best answer" only because it was not exactly that kind of question, and while there were some replies to the question that were more detailed than others, It was not a contest for "best".

We had a wonderful time and it was quite a learning experience.
Jane told us that if the rabbi were in attendance, it would be 3:00 AM before we got to the meal part. :) As it was, she said that we would observe the shortened version.
We had a seder plate with the specific items, the wine (oh, there was wine), the candles, matzah, all the necessary items; she even bought a yarmulke for me!
We took turns reading from the booklet that she prepared and she read some of the prayers in Hebrew. We went through the four questions, the breaking and hiding of the matzah, dipping the herbs in salt water, and the traditions of the Passover meal. We had a great time telling stories and the booklet that we followed even had some jokes about Passover.

We enjoyed the charoset, chopped liver, salmon appetizer, chicken stuffed with apples and raisins main course with vegetables and sweet potato kugel; dessert was cut fruit and cookies. She told us that the woman who did the cooking (it was catered) was excellent and that was the truth! Some of that stuff was wonderful (ok, I didn't really go for the chopped liver; I tried it, but it wasn't "wonderful"), the salmon had an excellent orange glaze and was out of this world.

We had a great evening.
posted by Drasher at 6:31 AM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

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