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Trying For A Diverse Seder? Tip No. 1: Don't Burn Your Guests

05/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I committed the ultimate faux pas in a Jewish home: I lit myself on fire.

Thrilled to be a guest with a Jewish family in Jerusalem, I was entirely in awe -- just as many other non-Jewish guests will be in coming days by the ancient traditions of Passover and the seder meal.

"I love your family's candlesticks!" I said, rising from my seat at the table to examine them more closely. "Can you tell us the family story behind them?"

Starry eyed, I reached in to look closer at the gorgeous silver candlesticks all ablaze for the holiday. My proud host began to tell the tale.

I remember a strangely acrid scent.

"He's on fire!" a girl shrieked.

I was. My sleeve blazed. The entire dinner party popped up and raced for water, a fire extinguisher, a bath towel, a throw rug from the floor. Soon, my body whirled around, gripped by strong hands. The rug enfolded my entire arm.

I'll never forget. And, if God had only put out the fire: "Dayenu!"

But there was more! My arm somehow escaped unscathed. This became a running joke throughout the evening. If God had only spared me injury: "Dayenu!"

But there was even more than that: years later, I was based in Jerusalem again as a journalist working on a series of stories. I stopped by a press center in the heart of Jerusalem and sat down next to a woman already tapping away on her keyboard.

She stared at me. I feared I had violated some press-room protocol, so I turned and said, "I'm sorry. I'm just here for a couple of weeks working on a story. Is it OK if I sit here?"

She roared in laughter: "Oh, yes! I just remembered who you are!"

I was thinking proudly: the American correspondent who reported the memorable story on ...

"You're the American who lit himself on fire!"

And so as Passover nears again, I can say in appropriately religious terms: God truly has a sense of humor in marking me indelibly as the non-Jewish guest dumb enough to set himself ablaze -- and turn himself into a living example of miraculous deliverance from injury in a crisis.

This week, if you receive an invitation to attend a Jewish friend's seder on March 29 or 30, don't worry: I've been a journalist for 30 years, and so far I'm the only person I know who has to be warned about fire safety on such occasions.

For non-Jews like me contemplating such an invitation, you'll be far ahead if you learn the Hebrew term above: "Dayenu," which roughly means, "It would have been enough!"

The seder is a ritual remembrance of the biblical deliverance from slavery in Egypt. That's the ancient tale nearly all Americans know from television if not from Sunday school: Moses demands that Pharaoh grant his people freedom, and soon, through a series of plagues and other dramatic events, Moses winds up on the shore of a seemingly impassable sea. The Egyptian army is in hot pursuit. Moses invokes God's power to part the waters and provide a dry path to freedom. It works! The waters part. Of course, in a later scene, the Egyptians don't fare so well as the waves crash over their chariots. And there's still trouble ahead: Moses' people run into decades of crises in the wilderness. The seder unfolds the story of liberation along with symbolic foods, readings, songs, actions -- and quite a bit of wine!

One of the classic moments in the seder is the question, usually asked by a child: "Why is this night different from all other nights?"

Then, the story of Exodus unfolds in response. The tale is retold with amazing compassion and humility. "Dayenu" helps to set that tone. As each incremental act of God is remembered, the guests collectively affirm, "It would have been enough!"

In light of that gracious tone of celebration, I can offer some wisdom to the many Americans who are contemplating invitations to diverse -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- seders at this time of year.

If you're Jewish and thinking about asking a non-Jewish friend, here are two tips: first, don't worry about fire safety, unless you're inviting me.

Second and most importantly, explain to your friends -- in advance of their accepting your invitation -- just how long your family keeps the seder going. That's the single biggest surprise for non-Jews who may be expecting a typical American holiday dinner that wraps up in several hours.

If you're not Jewish and you're contemplating an invitation as you read this column, here are a few tips for you:

Ask how long the seder will run. Reform Jewish families with children typically are speedier than more traditional Jewish friends without kids, who may enjoy a spirited seder of readings, songs, and lively discussion that can run into the wee hours of the morning. If you're in the unusual position of accepting an invitation to an Orthodox home, you should know that it's possible for a seder to run all night long.

If you're among the millions of Americans who don't drink alcohol, mention this to your host in advance. Emptying your cup repeatedly is part of the ritual.

Bone up on the story of Exodus in advance. The dramatic tale is right there in any Bible that's handy. Or, check out one of the many Hollywood versions. Knowing the basics of this timeless tale will help you dive right into the flow of the evening.

Oh, and if you do get swept up in this high drama -- don't reach for the candlesticks.

David Crumm is author of Our Lent: Things We Carry. His website is www.ReadTheSpirit.com

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