Learning How to Table Passover Arguments

As an adult, Stan Goldberg has always looked forward to celebrating Passover. This year, he will most likely attend an informal seder at a friend’s home in San Francisco, where he lives. But when he thinks about his youth, his associations with the holiday are less pleasant.

“As a child and teenager growing up in Allentown, Passover was a dreaded holiday for me. It was a time when my uncle, who thought of himself as a lay rabbi, strutted as my mother rolled her eyes, my father grumbled under his breath, my aunt looked adoringly at her husband — and I pretended the conflict and anger I saw didn’t exist,” the 69-year-old writes in an email.

In an ideal world, Goldberg’s parents would have found a way to spare their son — and themselves — the tension and tsuris of spending every Passover with a family member they considered arrogant and ungrateful. But that didn’t happen; they could not bring themselves to celebrate without their brother-in-law, and their attempts to convince him that they should host the seder were met by a long list of reasons — taken from the Talmud, he said — why that was impossible.

Sadly, Goldberg’s annual Passover ordeal at his aunt’s house did not end until he went away to college, and then moved out of the area. Now when he attends seders, he is grateful that no one tries to be “chief rabbi.” He is pleased that the focus is where it should be — on families enjoying themselves as they tell the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, reading from the Haggadah and eating the ritual foods.

As Goldberg’s childhood experience demonstrates, Passover sometimes comes with a modern-day version of enslavement. In celebration of a holiday that focuses on personal and collective freedom, we sometimes end up spending time with family members who make us feel as though our personal choices are limited, observes Eli Schostak, director of individual and family services for the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia.

His colleague, Robin Axelrod Sabag, concurs. Sabag, who is clinical supervisor for the agency, says along with the High Holidays, Passover brings in the most calls from people seeking mental health services of any Jewish holiday. Among the issues they may seek help for: the fear of falling into old dysfunctional patterns with family members; the financial stress of paying for the celebration and hosting out-of-town family members; mourning departed family members; and even coping with petty squabbles over who did or didn’t get to eat off the good china.

No matter what the issues may be, there are healthy ways to interact with family members adept at pushing our buttons. Here are some tips from Schostak, Sabag and other experts for avoiding plagues that afflict today’s seder participants.

Making a Pre-emptive Strike

“In all family get-togethers, there are relatives that you can’t disinvite,” says Los Angeles psychiatrist Mark Goulston, author of Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone. “For some reason, they take pleasure in ruining it for everyone else.” Goulston says the key to understanding such individuals is realizing they act inappropriately because they feel unimportant. To remedy that, Goulston suggests a respected senior family member make a pre-emptive phone call to the problem person about a week before the seder. In the phone call, the family member should offer the person a specific holiday role that will make them feel valued. Goulston says the conversation might follow this script:

“I need your help with something. You’re an important part of our Passover tradition. When we get together, you just never know what kind of year people are having. There could be cancer going on, bankruptcy, a problem teenager. You don’t know where people are coming from. Since you are there every year, I would like to count on you. When people come in, please act like the host. Can you say, ‘It’s nice to see you, would you like to have a drink,’ and ask how things are going? That would mean a lot to me and everyone.”

Goulston made such a phone call to a member of his family whose borderline personality disorder makes her prone to loud, angry outbursts. The woman graciously accepted her new role as family greeter and her behavior improved, he says.

Out of the Picture

Of course, sometimes the sensible thing to do is to eliminate the difficult person from the family celebration, especially if that person is abusive. Deb Schwarz Hirschhorn, the New York City-based author of The Healing Is Mutual, says, “You don’t have to put your head in a lion’s mouth. We are not circus entertainers. Family gatherings should be a way to bridge gaps and make peace and make friends within the family. And those who come should be people who are motivated in that regard. If family members are people that you think you would fight with because they are not nice people, you don’t have to have them for dinner.”

Practicing Tact

On the other hand, people who are easily upset or offended can be dealt with — without excluding them, Hirschhorn says. In her own family, dinners have gone smoothly after other guests were warned ahead of time to avoid the sensitive person’s trigger topics. “If someone is simply hypersensitive, you can get through by keeping your mouth shut and being polite,” Hirschhorn says.

Bring in a Ringer

In addition to warning guests about potential conversational minefields to avoid, Hirschhorn loves the idea of diverting guests’ attention from personality squabbles by making the seder educationally challenging. “Invite a guest who is knowledgeable about the Haggadah and can tell the story very well with all sorts of additional learning and knowledge to add interest. Once the family and guests are interested in what is going on, it takes their minds off the nonsense,” she says.

Give Everyone a Platform

Odds of a family seder rebellion diminish even more when everyone is encouraged to contribute their comments and thoughts. Ruthy Kaiser, director of the Bryn Mawr and Wynnewood offices of the Council for Relationships, gives everyone at her table a platform to share what they find meaningful. She encourages guests to bring their favorite readings, which saves her from having to exclusively provide them, and to share their thoughts on ways in which they currently feel enslaved.

Establishing Ground Rules

One of the best parts about Passover seders can also be one of the worst. Guests usually spend a lot of time together at the table bonding or trading negative comments. At one seder Kaiser hosted, she was in the kitchen when two of her good friends had a dust-up in the dining room. The two had never met before. One was a physician who made some unsympathetic statements about addicts without realizing that the other guest had lost several family members to addiction. The offended woman was so upset by the comments that she wanted to go home. She would have done so, ruining the seder dinner for everyone, had her own children not stopped her. Hearing the row, Kaiser returned to the dining room to tell the physician to desist, and forcefully changed the subject. Kaiser’s takeaway from the incident: “Keep in mind that you don’t know the innermost stories of the person sitting across the table — keep your judgments to yourself.” Furthermore, should someone share their problems with the group, resist the temptation to try to fix what is wrong, she adds.

Another way to avoid potential trouble is by agreeing upon expectations in advance, particularly for issues that pertain to children’s behavior or accommodating elderly attendees who might, for example, fare better with an earlier seder start time.

Kaiser remembers, “Way back when I was on my first seder, only one friend had children. Her 2-year-old wanted to terrorize the place. We had to agree on things. Kids crawling under the table made for a lot of tension.” The problem was eradicated with an advance discussion with the parents on what was expected: Would the kids be required to stay at the table or would they be allowed to leave the table to color or do something else? Everyone wins when parents don’t have to “shush” children and children aren’t made to feel guilty about not participating.

Goulston suggests the same type of discussion take place with teenagers and young adults or someone who represents that generation. The host might say:

“To be honest, you know we are different generations and I can tell that something my generation might put on might be boring, tedious and irritating to your generation. When we do it, what is something that we should do — and something we should not do so that it is as enjoyable as it can be, given the fact that we are of different generations?”

Goulston says millennials might find fewer reasons to check their smartphones during the proceedings if they are asked for their input ahead of time.

Keep Expectations Realistic

Anyone who expects their Passover family celebration to be perfect is likely to be disappointed, advises Schostack of Jewish Family and Children’s Service. When people aim for perfection, they start noticing all the things that make it fall short. Adds Sabag: “Don’t expect you will always be happy just because it is Passover.”

Individuals who are having financial difficulties need to be realistic about what they can and cannot afford to do, avoiding the trap of feeling like they “have to” entertain for the holiday in a certain way, Schostack and Sabag say. They can ask for help from family members, have a potluck seder dinner or, if need be, explain that this year they won’t be able to host guests or entertain them as they have in the past.

Should negative thoughts come up, acknowledge them, Schostack says. “Allow yourself to be present, to be OK with your thoughts. Even if you think that this is the worst seder you have ever been at, it isn’t necessarily true. Don’t be hard on your negative thoughts. Allow them to be and the thoughts will pass.” After all, he adds, allowing yourself to be who you are is the ultimate way to celebrate Passover and have ultimate freedom.

Gail Snyder is a frequent contributor to Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.



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