The Passover seder: More freedom, less drama

So how can families negotiate Passover successfully to avoid the pitfalls and hurt that can be caused, when the family situation is complicated? With good planning, forethought and flexibility.

LEAVE THE drama to Shakespeare. (photo credit: TNS)
LEAVE THE drama to Shakespeare.
(photo credit: TNS)
Mention Passover to most people and they’ll tell you that they think of the Seder night.
For some, it’s a time when families come together to eat matza and too much food, and discuss the Exodus of the Israelites from Pharaoh’s Egypt. For others, seder night is a different sort of experience, involving a complex juggling act of who’s invited and coming for the feast. With studies showing that just over 25% of marriages in Israel end in divorce and approximately 14% of Israeli adults aged 35-64 are divorced, many Seders involve a blended/separated family and its challenges. While it’s wonderful when separated families can put aside their differences for the holiday and come together, the reality for most blended families is a struggle about where and who to have Seder with.
To people like Tali, Passover is approached with dread, making the months leading up to Passover stressful and laden with tension, and the actual Seder night near to unbearable. Tali and Ben have four children between them. Two sons, age 10 and 12, from Tali’s previous marriage, one 11-year-old daughter from Ben’s previous marriage and one two-year-old daughter together. During the year, they manage the shared parenting with their previous spouses, but Seder night is always a flashpoint.
All Tali wants is to carry on the traditions that she experienced as a child and have a Seder night with all their family around them. Although Tali and her ex-husband Daniel had agreed to have the boys for Seder night for alternate years, when it is Tali’s year, there is pressure from Daniel to let him have the boys, as Daniel’s parents come in from the States every year for Passover and would like to spend the holiday with their grandchildren. Ben’s daughter spends most of the Seder complaining about the differences in his Seder, to the Seder with her Mom. In addition to Ben’s daughter’s negative attitude and the negotiations over the boys, Ben’s parents, who live in Israel, are acrimoniously divorced and his mother will not come to Seder when Ben’s father and his new wife are there. For Tali and Ben, Passover is the holiday that they wish could pass over without causing offence to anyone.
So how can families negotiate Passover successfully to avoid the pitfalls and hurt that can be caused, when the family situation is complicated? While there is no magic pill and some complications may be inevitable, with good planning forethought and quite a bit of flexibility, a lot of the pain can be avoided.

1. Delete the ideal

We have huge expectations around holiday times. Pictures of the perfect family with everybody enjoying each other’s company are rarely fulfilled. The need to try and have those family moments especially where there is a new or blended family involved creates an extra layer of stress. Recognizing that rarely is a family perfect and letting go of the picture of what the ideal family Seder looks like can free you up to be open to a different experience that may well be better than the one you imagined.

2. Color outside the lines

Margorie Engel, a Boston-based author and consultant on divorce and families, suggests, “Give yourself permission to color outside the lines,” meaning that instead of seeing Seder night as the pivotal moment of Passover, it can be helpful to look at Seder as only one component of the holiday, and that there are plenty of other opportunities for special moments and creating traditions for life. These could be hiking trips on Chol Hamoed or pre-Passover traditions that can be turned into a bigger event, such as the searching for and/or burning of the chametz (making a huge bonfire). The important element is to create those bonding experiences, ones which a child may look back upon and say, Passover for me was (and is) hiking with Dad and Seder with Mom.

3. Look for each person’s underlying objectives

In looking at Passover, each person has different needs from the holiday. Finding out what each person wants from the holiday is a building block for negotiations. Not everybody has the same objective. For example, Daniel would like his parents to be able to spend time with his boys, while Tali’s main objective is to have everyone together for Seder night. It might be that Daniel is prepared to allow the boys to have Seder night with Tali if she agrees to the boys going away with his parents for the rest of the holiday.

4. Planning

When faced with hard decisions, procrastination is understandable, but counterproductive. The earlier plans are made, the more alternatives are available and people can make appropriate arrangements. If Ben leaves inviting his mother until the month before Passover, his father may have assumed he would be invited and will not have made alternate plans for the Seder, which could lead to tension. When it comes to children, planning even the small details is a sure way to avoid fights on the holiday. Deborah Moskovitch, author of The Smart Divorce, advises people to sit down with their ex and bring a calendar (and, if necessary, a neutral third party, like a professional mediator or trusted mutual friend) to figure out exactly how they are going to deal with the holiday, right down to whether the kids are being picked up or dropped off, at what time, and the things they’ll need to pack. “It can be fluid and change, but it gets rid of any miscommunication.”

5. Involvement

Ask people who are involved what their expectations of Seder are. They may surprise you. Some may put emphasis on the meal and some on the reading of the Haggadah. Some may feel that two hours is plenty of time for a Seder and anything longer is simply a drag, while others relish time spent around the table and want to sing every song and discuss every topic. In any case, looking at where you can accommodate without ruining your idea of what you would like Seder to be will make people feel welcome and included. It could be that you are happy for those who feel Seder is too long to leave after the meal. Accommodating everyone is near to impossible but showing willingness to the idea of a different Seder goes a long way.

6. Traditions
Passover is a time of traditions and it can feel almost sacrilegious not to have the same traditions every year, but incorporating traditions of others can be fun. You don’t have to include all other people’s traditions but if possible, ask which of their traditions is the most meaningful/fun one they have, and if you can, try it out. Making your own new traditions on Seder night can be a great way of cementing your new family. When Tali asked Ben’s daughter to be responsible for “her tradition” which was the actions for the 10 plagues, it made her feel more involved and happier about being at Seder.

7. Recognize limitations
It is important to recognize that you cannot change other people’s relationships. It may be futile for Ben to invite his estranged parents together and expect them to act civilly for his and the children’s sake. The only actions you can take are ones that you have control over, such as setting your expectations and boundaries down clearly and acting within the reality of other people’s relationships.

8. Flexibility and making the best of what we have
As we sit down to Seder night, there are two main focus points on the table, the seder plate with its six components, each one symboling a part of Exodus neatly laid out, and the matza, which the Haggadah tells us, is to remember that when the Jews came out of Egypt they baked bread and placed it on their backs, and because it did not have time to rise it became matza. There are many explanations for the seder plate and the matza, but perhaps the one most applicable here is that the seder plate represents order and planning, much like the order and planning that went in to making the preparations of the Seder and the matza represents plans going awry and still making the best of it. What was deemed a mistake became one of the most central parts of the Seder. So when plans do go awry, and they often do, try to be flexible and go with it, take a really deep breath look at the matza and see how you could make it work.
The writer qualified as a lawyer in the UK and then retrained as a licensed mediator both in England and in Israel. She currently resides in Jerusalem, where she has a mediation practice specializing in mediation for English speakers.;
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