Passover is the most celebrated of all the Jewish holidays, with more than 70 percent of Jewish Americans taking part in a seder, according to a recent Pew study.
No two seders are alike. We all celebrate the same holiday in our own unique ways. Throughout my life, I've experienced all kinds of seders, from more intimate tables to more crowded ones, and seders that reflect diverse parts of the Jewish community.
As a child, for many years, my family and I -- though ourselves less observant -- joined our Orthodox friends' seder each year. The festivities wouldn't officially start until sundown when three stars glimmered in the sky. The rollicking seder would last four-plus hours, until after the fourth glass of wine (or maybe fifth or sixth) was downed and the culminating verse of the playful song "Chad Gadya" had been sung.
But other times, decades later, when my nephews were little, my family would speed through our own abbreviated seder. We'd include some meaningful questions outside of the Haggadah that adults and children alike could ponder like "what makes each of us feel free?" But after a brief discussion, we'd forge ahead promptly to the festive meal before the boys (and some of us adults) grew too weary.
As much as my family cherishes the holidays we spend as a unit, celebrating together isn't always possible. Like many of your families, mine is scattered throughout the country, so there have been times when we just can't all make it to one central place. On those years, I've done seders with friends instead of family, and other years I've even attended seders with a room full of new faces.
A couple years back, the president of my alma mater invited my now-husband and me to his beautiful interfaith seder at his Evanston home. We were honored to join Northwestern President Morton Schapiro's seder with enough tables to fit 75 guests -- children, students, and adults from different religions, races, and ethnic communities.
Dr. Schapiro -- who co-hosted the seder with his daughter, epitomizing the true spirit of passing the holiday down through the generations -- welcomed us by retelling a synopsis of the full story of Passover, from Moses being set afloat all the way to the parting of the sea. Before we went around the room and read from the Haggadah, our hosts wanted to make sure everyone felt some familiarity with the story, whether this was our first seder or our 100th.
All these distinct Passover seders from throughout my life meld together to form this colorful patchwork of memories.
But no matter what seder table I sit at, I've observed one common thread through all of them: They're always haimish, infused with a sense of warmth and hospitality. And there is almost always at least one new guest at the table, someone who perhaps doesn't live near family -- sometimes me -- or someone who the Seder hosts invited, simply because they wanted him or her at their table.
As we are charged on Passover: "All who are hungry, come and eat; all who are needy, come and celebrate Passover."
Sure, we have physical hunger and needs, but we also have the spiritual variety. We need compassion. We hunger for community.
As you prepare for the Passover season, think about what you want your seder to look like this year. First, reserve seats for the seder staples -- the people you can't imagine your seder without.
Then, set aside some seats -- not just for Elijah -- but for the less obvious guests to welcome to your table, the ones who perhaps don't have another seder to go to, or maybe even the guests who practice their faith a bit differently than you do.
So, we can heed the call to let "all who are hungry, come and eat."
Check back all week for more stories in our "Why We Retell the Story" Passover blog series at oychicago.com/Passover.