A Shiksa's Guide to Understanding Passover

04/03/2015 10:48 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

Look out! Your cool Jewish friends invited you to their Passover seder and you want to say "YES" but have no idea what a seder is! That's how I felt when I first met my husband who brought me to his family's Passover celebration:

Is it a cocktail party?
Will there be a show?
What about a sacrifice?
Should I have a better understanding of different cultures of the world?

The answers to those questions are yes, yes, sorta, and YES, respectively.

So I invite you to read on as I detail my experiences with Passover and help you newbies get a handle on what it's all about. Knowledge is power right? Let's do this:

Passover celebrates the Jewish people's freedom from slavery in Egypt roughly around 1300BC. From the story of Exodus, God helps the Children of Israel escape the tyranny of the Pharaoh who enslaved them by casting ten plagues upon ancient Egypt.

Those plagues are:

10. Water into blood
9. Frogs
8. Lice
7. Wild beasts
6. Diseased livestock
5. Boils
4. Thunderstorms of hail and fire
3. Locusts
2. Darkness

And the number one worst plague brought by God upon the ancient Egyptians to free the Jews from slavery is *drumroll*

1. Death of the firstborn son

That last one was a big thorn in the side of the Pharaoh, which prompted him to release the Jews from slavery. It is also where we get the English word "Passover". During this plague the Israelites were instructed to mark their front door with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb. This would indicate to the spirit of the Lord to pass over and save the firstborn in these homes.

Upon their release, they scrammed out of Egypt so quickly that there wasn't time to allow the bread to leaven. This is why we have the traditional matzo, unleavened bread. During Passover, no leavened bread is eaten and that includes vodka. Sorry guys, that martini has wheat in it.

Passover for religious Jews runs for seven days. For Reform Jews like my in-laws, it is observed for two nights only and with typically one Seder dinner.

Now let's get to this seder you're invited to. What is it?

The seder is typically a family gathering at home over a ritualistic feast where generations of a family read from the Haggadah, a book that details the history of Exodus with blessings, rituals, commentaries, and songs. If you're a first timer, you'll feel like you're getting called on in school to read from your history book. If your turn lands you on the section about "bondage," try not to giggle. However, in my Seder experience, it's a bit of a comedy show as I married into a family of hams. No treif* pun intended.

*Treif is Yiddish meaning food that is not kosher such as pork (including ham) and shellfish.

As you read through the Haggadah together (or in my experience two-thirds of it since some bits are lengthy and cousin Joanne's matzo lasagna is getting cold), you'll learn that each section coincides with a food to be tasted and wine to be sipped with that section. A few examples:

Karpas, parsley dipped in salt water to symbolize the bitterness of enslavement.

Charoset (pronounced: huros-sit), a mixture of finely chopped apples, fruits, and nuts to illustrate the mortar the Jews used to build the pyramids under Egyptian oppression. Charoset also represents the sweetness of life and it is delicious. Why this isn't a standard breakfast food is beyond me.

If you're new and enjoy hide and seek, you'll like the Afikoman portion. An elder of the family will hide a matzo and at the prescribed time the children must seek it out. At my first Seder, I won against a seven year old. I showed him. The lucky kid, in that case me, who finds the hidden matzo gets a few bucks, like the tooth fairy. Every year, my husband reminisces, "in 1980, I'd make five bucks."

Passover, filled with its rich history and symbolic rituals, offers a wonderful opportunity to understand the Jewish religion and culture. It's a joyous holiday filled with food and family. If you're invited to a seder dinner, I highly recommend RSVPing yes.