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Does Less Equal More When It Comes to Seders?

April 13, 2011 By:
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Estelle Fleischer can't help but think of the Passover seder in terms of time -- a really long time, to be precise.

Her childhood memories involved her stomach rumbling and her eyes glazing over as adults went on and on in incomprehensible Hebrew.

"My father was a kosher butcher. We had to say every word of the seder," said Fleischer, a Center City resident and grandmother of five.

The member of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City said that she has always looked for ways to offer her grandchildren -- now between the ages of 9 and 14 -- a different sort of experience. In the past, puppet show re-enactments of the Exodus were part of the routine, but the kids have complained that they're too old for that kind of thing now.

Wondering what to do for Passover this year, which begins with the first seder on April 18, Fleischer found her answer in an advertisement in Hadassah magazine. And the solution had everything to do with time.

The ad promoted the 30minute Seder: The Haggadah That Blends Brevity With Tradition, a self-published book by an Arizona entrepreneur and author (www.30minuteSeder.com).

Fleischer checked it out online and determined that the Haggadah -- which comes in print and digital formats -- still had the essentials like the four cups of wine, the four questions and the eating of the afikomen.

She wound up ordering about 20 copies through her synagogue's gift shop.

"At least everybody is going to know the story. For a half-hour, everyone will be totally engrossed," said Fleischer, who is active in the BZBI Sisterhood. "It's colorful. It's a nice-looking Haggadah. But I don't know. We'll see how successful this is going to be."

No doubt, families have been doing their own versions of the 30-minute seder -- by skipping around and cutting out parts -- at least as long as Maxwell House has mass-produced the Haggadah. (For the record, it first did so in 1923.)

But in the digital age -- where individuals live at a faster pace, with shorter attention spans -- there seems to be no shortage of Haggadahs, both online and in print, that capitalize on brevity. For example,www.jewishboston.com, a site funded by Boston's Jewish federation, offers a free, downloadable Haggadah that it says can be completed in half-an-hour. And www.jewishfreeware.com , a free site run by Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner, a Conservative rabbi in Wyncote, allows people to customize the length of their seder and download the content.

Time Is of the Essence?

But the question -- perhaps unanswerable, at least quantitatively -- is whether more working families and young, single professionals are looking for seders that don't eat up too much of the clock.

And how deep is the link between the time spent conducting the seder and the overall impact of the experience? Can a 30-minute seder be as powerful, and make as lasting an impression, as a three-hour affair?

The answers do matter since the Passover meal is the most observed ritual on the Jewish calendar.

According to the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia," some 76 percent of respondents said they take part in a seder. That's six points higher than the next most popular ritual, lighting Chanukah candles, and more than 20 points higher than fasting on Yom Kippur.

Rob Kopman, author of the 30minute Seder, sits squarely on the side of less equals more.

The 56-year-old native of Brooklyn, N.Y., and current resident of Scottsdale, Ariz., also recalled a "tortuous" experience at his grandparents' traditional seder. He initially created a Haggadah for his own family. As a lark, he put one online for sale -- and people actually bought it.

So Kopman spent a year working with a Reconstructionist rabbi to fine-tune the book and get it as brief as possible, without cutting out anything essential.

Kopman's 31-page Haggadah is nearly all in English. It's filled with colorful illustrations and is designed to be finished before eating begins, which means it excludes most of the traditional post-meal part of the seder. It includes a highly condensed version of the maggid, or Exodus story, one that breaks with tradition when it comes to its length, but not in terms of interpretation.

Kopman said that, in the past, families may have been comfortable picking and choosing from the Haggadah. But today, many households, especially interfaith families, lack the knowledge to discern, in essence, what can and cannot be passed over.

"The high points are there. We give the level of reverence to the holiday that it demands," said Kopman. "One of our goals is to not have people so exhausted that they don't want to discuss anymore."

Jewish law stipulates that there's not a whole lot that needs to be done in order for a seder to count, so to speak, according to Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach, who heads the Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station.

The halachic minimum, the Orthodox rabbi said, includes drinking the four cups of wine, eating matzah, maror and the afikomen, and reciting a specific segment of the maggid.

But the reason so much extra has been tacked on, he explained, is that the seder is meant to be a transformative experience, one that makes the participants really feel as if they personally were being delivered from slavery in Egypt to freedom.

"What's ideal is the full experience," said Weinbach, adding that his family's first-night seder runs for about four hours, and the one on the second night -- well, that tends to go into the wee hours.

He acknowledged that such a lengthy affair doesn't work for everybody.

Deborah Meyer, executive director of the Jenkintown-based organization Moving Traditions, which aims to help individuals become more Jewishly connected, admitted feeling torn about the idea of shorter seders.

On the one hand, she said, brief seders seem like yet another concession to an age of hand-held gadgets and constant multi-tasking. She wondered whether anyone would try to reduce the entire narrative to a 140-character tweet.

She added that her grandfather would be "appalled" at the thought of finishing a seder in the time it takes to watch a sitcom.

But Meyer stressed that, on the other hand, not everybody has "the patience and the learning" for marathon seders, and that abbreviated rituals can be "great for people who are less confident about their Jewish literacy and what to do."

Some Ask for More

Still, a handful of young professionals interviewed for this story noted that, if anything, they grew up having seders that barely lasted half-an-hour, and expressed a desire for a more in-depth Passover experience.

Matt Hoffman, a 31-year-old former lawyer who now works in business, joked that he should get a cease-and-desist order for the 30minute Seder since, his family "invented" the concept in the 1980s.

Only as a law student at Columbia University did he partake in seders that stretched over several hours -- and he said he really enjoyed them.

"For me, it's more like savoring food, instead of scarfing down a meal," he said, adding that "in daily life and professional life, everybody is rushing through everything."

Hoffman, who grew up in Bucks County, now lives in Center City and is active with the group Tribe12, noted that his ideal is somewhere between the half-hour and four-hour versions.

For the record, he expects that this year, it will take his extended family about an hour to go through the Haggadah.

Claudia Moffa, 45, grew up attending a traditional, three-hour seder run by her grandfather in Northeast Philadelphia. She acknowledged that Passover has never been her favorite holiday. But she said that it's important for her 9-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter -- who don't have the week off from school -- to experience the holiday with extended family, albeit in an abbreviated, half-hour format.

Moffa, who lives in Collegeville and is a member of Beth Chaim Reform Congregation in Malvern, said that for the first seder, her family will drive roughly 40 minutes each way to her sister's house in Glenside.

The second night, she said, the family will spend about 10 minutes or so discussing an aspect of the holiday before the meal.

"In my own home, I will make it short and sweet, but still observe the holiday," said the interior decorator.

"I don't know if it's because we are so busy," she said, referring to the brevity of her family's seders, saying it had more to do with her sense that "some of the traditions have faded over the years."

Morris Levin, a 35-year-old who is married and has a 3-year-old daughter, noted that many families with toddlers might tend to end early. But Levin, who runs a private-equity firm, said that his household seder will go on for at least three hours, and his daughter will just fall asleep when she gets tired.

Though the graduate of the formerly named Solomon Schechter Day School (now Perelman) and Akiba Hebrew Academy (now Barrack) said that "there have been very long seders I have enjoyed and very brief seders I have enjoyed. It depends upon the combination of people and the discussion."

He added that Passover "is a very personal experience. We all grew up in different ways. Just because a traditionally long seder works for me doesn't mean a 30-minute seder won't work for somebody else."

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