With an admitted “passion for Passover,” speech technologist Murray Spiegel has spent 35 years creating memorable seders.
The author of “300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions” – whose second edition now includes Na’vi, the language from the film “Avatar” – Spiegel fondly remembers family seders, “with my grandfather reading and the kids off in their own little world.”
When he was a graduate student, nostalgia for those “warm, wonderful seders” inspired him to create something of his own.
“I resolved that I would try to have a different seder every year,” he said. “My guests never know what they’ll get when they come in. Sometimes we use the Maxwell House Haggadah with supplements; sometimes the whole house is decorated around a theme.”
Putting together a themed seder is a lot of work, said the Pesach enthusiast, who was scheduled to speak yesterday with parents of young children at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades. But the author is happy to share, and web surfers who search for “seders for you” will find many of the author’s haggadot as well as puzzles and games to liven up the seder experience.
One of those seders is built around an Egyptian archeological experience; another highlights the recollections of crypto-Jews. For something a little different, Spiegel has also included what he calls The Oliver “Twisted” Seder – a Dickensian event. One year, choosing as his theme “a flight to freedom,” he decorated his home like an airplane, gave all guests boarding passes, and displayed flight maps of Egypt and Israel.
“I treat the adults like kids,” he said, pointing out that while his presentation at the JCC was under the auspices of the Early Childhood department, his ideas are really for parents of children of all ages.
“It’s about how to have an unforgettable seder,” he said.
Among his favorite seder activities are quizzes based on his book, which is available from local Jewish bookstores or from his website, whyisthisnight.com. While the work, compiled by Spiegel and co-author Rickey Stein, contains translations of the ritual questions in languages from Zulu to Abkhaz, Spiegel admits having three favorites.
First, he said, he is particularly drawn to the questions rendered in Late Egyptian.
“It give me the chills,” he said of the translation, which is recorded on a companion CD by “linguists using their best understanding of what the language would have sounded like. We got it from a British-trained Egyptologist. This is how [the Four Questions] would have been spoken at the time of the Exodus. Moses and Aaron heard this language.”
He is also partial to the translation of the questions in the language of New Jersey’s Lenape tribe. “This provides a teachable moment,” he said, pointing out that there are only six people left who speak the language.
“I use this to relate how the Jews also have endangered languages” like Ladino and Romaniote, he said. One seder attendee reported to him that he was the last in his family to speak Ladino – and as for Romaniote, a Judeo-Greek language, “only 50 people are left who speak that.”
Spiegel said many Native Americans look to Hebrew as a “shining example” of how to save their language. After all, he said, “Hebrew was a dead language 130 years ago, but one person’s passion brought it back to life.”
Another favorite language, newly added to the book, is Rap, he said, noting that the rapper Etan G, who tours with Shlock Rock, wrote and recorded a rap version of the Four Questions especially for the book’s second edition.
Spiegel said his book has been so successful that one Schechter school in New Jersey used it as the basis for a school project, assigning different languages to different classes and having the students dress up in the clothing of the appropriate country.
One class learned the questions in Arabic and “the students put on keffiyahs and used staffs to walk around the desert for 40 years; others learned a Yemenite melody and danced around,” he said. Still others took on Israeli Sign Language Hebrew Morse code, while students in other classes tackled Yiddish and Russian.
Spiegel said his own favorite seder activity involves Hebrew Semaphore, used by the Israeli navy. Seder participants hold the semaphore flags in the appropriate position to spell out the questions, and everyone at the seder gets to participate.
Children as young as 6 or 7 “love acting out as Valley Girls,” he noted, explaining that the language of that group is also represented in his book. In addition, children enjoy using Jibberish, a language featured on the PBS program “Zoom.”
“It’s like Pig Latin, but with its own specific rules,” he said. “Many kids know it.”