You've Been Invited to Your First Passover Meal. Now What?
Whether you have been invited by friends to participate in their Passover seder or are romantically involved with someone of the Jewish faith and are joining their family celebration, going to your first seder can be a bit nerve-wracking. But a Passover seder is a wonderful experience, and there is no need to be nervous! Here's what you need to know so you can attend respectfully, eat properly, and have fun!
First, a bit of background about Passover
Passover is one of the major Jewish holidays, celebrating the liberation of the Jews from the bonds of slavery in Egypt. The seder prescribes certain foods to be eaten during the retelling of the Exodus story, followed by a festive meal that contains traditional dishes marked by a common thread of not including any ingredients that can be considered "leavened." This means no bread, no pasta, no regular cakes or baked goods, and many other restrictions. It is considered a mitzvah, or a blessing, to invite people to share your table for seder, especially non-Jews.
What to expect at a Passover seder
Depending on how observant your hosts are, and the age of the youngest participants, the Passover seder service might be as short as 20 minutes or as long as an hour or more. There may even be a continuation of the service after the meal. During the service you will be asked to join in reading passages from the Haggadah, to follow rituals like dipping parsley in salt water before eating it, making small sandwiches from matzo (unleavened crackers) and charoset (a blend of apples, nuts, honey, and wine). You may be asked to open the door for Elijah or wash your hands. You should not be concerned at all about the service in advance; one of your hosts will be designated as the leader of the service, and that person will be the one who tells you what to do and when, and more importantly, why. Just follow their lead, and you will find it painless to participate. If you are concerned about things like readings, you can look up Haggadah texts online or borrow one from a library to read in advance and familiarize yourself with the basic story and progression of the seder.
What can you bring to a Passover seder?
Every Jewish household is different. Some are deeply religious and will follow sacred laws to the letter, ridding their home of all non-Kosher for Passover foods, serving the meal on a special set of dishes reserved just for seder, and doing every page of the Haggadah. Less observant Jews may use the seder more as a way to gather family and friends for a festive meal, and the service as a cultural touchstone. These families may be somewhat more relaxed on following the Kosher laws. It will be important before attending your service to find out where your hosts land on this scale so that you do not accidentally bring something into the home that is not allowed.
If you have been told you do not need to bring anything for the meal itself and are just looking for a nice thank you gift for your hosts, flowers or a small potted plant are always a safe bet since they are not edible, as is a nice book. If you are bringing flowers, be sure to bring them already in a vase in water so that your hosts do not need to arrange them, as the Passover meal is complicated, and you do not want to give them an unexpected task.
How to shop for Passover seder foods
If you are going to bring a dish to share, ask your hosts for some guidance at levels of Kosher they observe, and for a specific assignment like an appetizer, salad, or dessert (flourless chocolate cakes are perfect for Passover). When shopping for ingredients for anything you make, be sure that any packaged food is marked Kosher for Passover, or OKP. You can make it easier on yourself to find a local Kosher market to do your shopping, and feel free to ask for assistance once there. There are plenty of good Kosher wines available, so you can ask your local wine seller to help you find a bottle or two that will make for a good offering.
The most important thing to bring to a Passover seder
Finally, the most important thing you can bring to a seder is your open heart. By being included in this sacred ritual, you are being told that your hosts believe your presence is a blessing. So, pay close attention, and participate joyously even if some of the traditions seem a bit awkward or unexpected for you. While the seder happens in someone's home and not in a temple, the service essentially turns that private home into a place of worship, so your behavior should be respectful and no different than it would be in any house of God.