What books would you recommend that teach non-Jews about a Passover seder?
February 3, 2012 4:27 AM   Subscribe

What books/websites can I have my non-Jewish boyfriend read to teach him about what to expect at his first Passover seder?

My non-Jewish boyfriend has been invited to this year's Passover seder at my parents' house. This is a Big Deal in my family.

I was raised with Conservative Judaism, but kind of rebelled a bit on retaining anything I learned in Hebrew school, so I am woefully ignorant about a lot of Jewish things including, as it turns out, how to explain the significance of Passover and what the seder will entail, etc. (let's ignore the fact that I've been to a seder every year of my life; I still find it difficult to explain to a non-Jew what goes on)

When my mom issued the invitation to my boyfriend to attend, I told her I very much appreciated the invitation and she joked that he'd be fighting with the baby who'll be attending to ask the four questions. I mentioned that to my boyfriend who had no idea what asking the four questions meant.

That's when I realized I needed to explain to him what he should expect and also when I realized I need help in that department.

The Passover story, itself, is read during the seder, so I don't need to go into that with him, but I was hoping to get recommendations on books (maybe children's books?) that explain the seder, itself, and the traditions involved in when wine is drunk, the hand washing rituals, etc. with the expectation that the reader knows absolutely nothing about a seder.

I know there are websites that explain Passover, but the ones that I've looked at assume some basic knowledge already of what goes on during the seder.

Any recommendations for what I can show my boyfriend to help prepare him for the big night are appreciated.

posted by lea724 to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I attended my first Passover seder with my girlfriend's family last year, so I know all too well what's awaiting your boyfriend. I found that everyone was very friendly and helpful, and her mother took lots of time to explain things to me as we went along. It really wasn't a problem and I had a great time. However, you may find this useful: http://www.jewfaq.org/holidaya.htm.
posted by Nick Jordan at 4:34 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have brought a lot of non-Jews to our (fairly casual) seders without explaining a thing beforehand. The Haggadah explains when to do what, and often why to do what, so he's not going to be confused about what comes next (unless you have a Haggadah with only Hebrew).

Just google around, find one explanation that sounds more or less like what you do, and let your boyfriend read it. He can do more research, but even the Wikipedia explanation is pretty good.
posted by jeather at 4:42 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a really good book, How To Be A Perfect Stranger, that covers etiquette for when you're invited to a religious event that's not your own religion. I would be VERY surprised if they didn't cover Seders in it; that may be something to check out for the basics.

As for the rest -- I'm a non-Jew who got invited to a dear friend's family seder twice now (he's an only child and usually the guests are his mom and two of his mom's friends, and sometimes he gets DAMN sick of still asking the four questions, so sometimes he brings in a younger person), the Haggadah actually does a good job of explaining-as-you-go, I found. (And they were very patient and forgiving with me last year when I went to open the door for Elijiah, but got confused which was the right door and ended up grandly throwing open the door to his mom's coat closet instead.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:51 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Would it be helpful to have the boyfriend read this? Among other things, it lists the four questions.

posted by AMSBoethius at 5:10 AM on February 3, 2012

Really, the whole point of the Seder is that the meal itself is instructional. I don't know how your family runs it, but typically the person running it explains the significance of each step as you go- maybe suggest to your family that they emphasize this bit a little more this time?

I did a Seder a couple years ago for a group of non-Jews, and it was a blast. No one had any knowledge more than your boyfriend beforehand.
posted by mkultra at 5:37 AM on February 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Having brought non-Jewish boyfriends and friends to Seders of the past, I'm going to agree with people who are saying that Seders are really designed to teach people the story of Exodus. It is probably the most user-friendly religious ceremony I've ever come across. If you have a spare Hagaddah hanging around - just use the one that you guys will be using for the Seder, if itnincludes English translations - he can read that ahead of time to have an idea of the evening.

You can warn him about gefilte fish.
posted by sciencegeek at 5:37 AM on February 3, 2012

If your boyfriend is a Christian (or has had a Christian upbringing), he may appreciate Christ in the Passover. It is (as the title suggests) directed at a Christian audience, but it is also an entertaining and clear explanation of a Passover seder.
posted by KirkpatrickMac at 5:39 AM on February 3, 2012

AskMoses does a nice job: What is a Seder? and Practical Seder Guide.
posted by artlung at 6:32 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a non-jew in Israel, I was invited to a seder, and my friend gave me a book called the Diaspora Hagaddah, which really helped understand what was happening.
posted by dhruva at 7:08 AM on February 3, 2012

Maybe check out An American Haggadah which is by a number of authors and scholars including MeFi's own foxy_hedgehog. (via)
posted by gauche at 7:31 AM on February 3, 2012

If yours is an everyone-takes-turns-reading-the-haggadah Seder, give him a heads up on the nastiest Hebrew words he might have to say (eg, in ours the plagues are named in Hebrew - we kind of enjoy the humor of someone trying to get all that out the first time, but if non-embarrassment is a priority for you then you could give fair warning...)
posted by range at 7:42 AM on February 3, 2012

I've enjoyed every Passover Seder I've gone to including the first one without any special foreknowledge. But I guess it depends on who is hosting the Seder and how they handle it. I know my wife looked at a copy of a "script" for a Seder before we went since she was brought up basically non-religiously. Just from church school I at least was aware of some of the basics.
New people who have no clue usually seem to have fun, as long as the host and the veterans also have fun. YMMV.
posted by MrBobaFett at 8:08 AM on February 3, 2012

I have this book Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide To Beliefs, Customs & Rituals which I've found quite useful for descriptions of, well, beliefs, customs and rituals that I (raised Jewish/non-religious/non-affiliated) have missed learning about. From the Amazon review:

Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals is a brief but comprehensive layman's handbook to Jewish prayer, worship, festivals, customs, history, language, philosophy, and ideology. Its author, George Robinson, returned to synagogue after a 20-year absence and found himself utterly confused about the basics of his religion, despite having attended Hebrew school. He looked far and wide for a reference work that would help him get his bearings but did not find one; so he wrote one himself.

Though I haven't looked at it in a while, I think it gets into the differences between Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc. in terms of how various holidays and traditions are observed. And if you guys stay together, it would be a good guide to all the future holidays he'll spend with you, too;)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 10:07 AM on February 3, 2012

Goy here, checking in.

Granted I've only been to Reform seders (or is it more correct to say seders held by people who are Reform/practice Reform Judaism?). But I found that the Haggadah* and the presence of the people around me who knew I was an outsider was really all I needed. Especially since, in my experience, there's nothing terribly foreign or weird or unacceptable that goes on that I would need to be warned about in advance.

That said, I'm a nerd and went into the seder with a bit of context for what Passover is. Because I already know stuff about history and culture and world religions and the like. If your boyfriend is totally ignorant of anything at all about Judaism and will really need a lot of context, then probably send him down the Wikipedia hole.

*On the other hand, it occurs to me that in Conservative Judaism, the Haggadah might not be in English. If that's the case, ignore everything I'm saying here and check out some of the Haggadahs (Haggadim?) mentioned above.
posted by Sara C. at 10:24 AM on February 3, 2012

Haggadahs (Haggadim?)

Haggadot - feminine plural.

posted by DestinationUnknown at 10:28 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

♫ Haggadot, haggadot.

Dizabeen abba bizrei zuzim, haggado-o-o-o-t, ha-ga-dot. ♫

/sorry, non-jews. that's a totally inside Passover joke.

Which is to say, knowing the story that the seder is about it useful, but in my family Passover is an excuse to make a nice brisket, get drunk, and sing. I think the most useful things you can tell your boyfriend are what things are important in your family's celebration. Warn him that there are four glasses of wine, and tell him if it's expected to drink all four or if it's better to demur. Are there certain dishes he should be sure to ooh and ah over? Maybe your parents would be impressed if he learned a little Hebrew before hand. If he's going to ask the four questions, he could practice saying
Mah nishtanah halayla hazeh mikol halaylot
and wow them a bit. (and if he does, you might want to use this joke, which would be appropriate). Good Luck!
posted by benito.strauss at 9:42 PM on February 3, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you for all of your responses! I really appreciate it!
posted by lea724 at 7:11 AM on February 6, 2012

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