A few years ago I accepted an invitation to share a Passover seder at the home of my then-boyfriend’s parents.
Since we were becoming more serious as a couple, I was excited to experience this penultimate sign of family acceptance. I bought a cute new dress to wear and some gourmet kosher-for-Passover chocolates for his mom. I prepped by asking for short bios on second cousins I’d be meeting for the first time and, in case I was asked, I practiced the Four Questions.
Shortly after the seder began, it became apparent that this night indeed was going to be much different from all other nights.
I learned quickly that in this family, the actions of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh could spark a hot debate on current U.S. Middle East policy. I witnessed a Haggadah reading enhanced by the insertion of several scratchy musical recordings – a lovely albeit seder-lengthening touch. And not surprisingly, I discovered, no one makes kugel better than my mother.
In truth, it was a perfectly wonderful evening and few experiences provided as intimate a window into the theater of my boyfriend’s family. Their Passover hospitality, and peccadilloes, would set the bar for my relationships to come.
Hospitality is more than encouraged on Passover; it is required. We are commanded to leave the door open for Elijah the prophet as well as to invite all who are hungry to come and eat.
But when you are dating, the hungry can often interpret a come-and-eat invitation as more symbolic than the shank bone on a seder plate. And your family can become either a boon or a liability.
“For me it’s an investment,” says Tara Chantal Silver, 32, a publicist in Washington. “Passover is a very big deal in my family. I don’t bring every guy home, just the ones who are special.”
So how do you know if it’s the right time to extend an invitation to that someone special?
“The first question to ask yourself is, do I want this person sitting beside me?” says relationship expert Andrea Syrtash. “But it doesn’t have to be a specific answer, like I want them to be the mother of my children. It’s a gracious thing to invite someone for the holiday. No one normal or healthy would freak out being asked.”
Dating coach Evan Marc Katz says to consider “the strength of the relationship over an arbitrary timeline.”
If you think the relationship has the potential to become long-term or serious eventually, Katz says, at some point you’re going to have to meet the family – and Passover is as good a time as any.
Adina Matusow, 28, and her fiancÃ©, Ben, took it slow spending the holiday together.
“As far as Passover, we weren’t so interested in sharing,” says Matusow, who lives with her fiancÃ© in Stamford, Conn.
By the time she went to his aunt’s house for Passover, they had been dating for nearly two years.
Matusow says the experience was different from what she was used to with her family. His family was smaller and less noisy, and the seder plate looked amiss.
“I thought, where is the celery? They were using parsley [as a leafy green vegetable] instead,” she recalls. “I didn’t say anything; I didn’t want to be rude. It’s not a big deal and it was a really nice experience.”
Sometimes, though, a divide in ritual observance can be more significant than celery over parsley.
In 24 years of marriage, Robbie Wagner, 48, says most arguments with her husband stem from the differences in their holiday traditions.
Wagner, who lives in Dallas, grew up with an Orthodox seder conducted in Hebrew, a “command performance with 50 to 60 people there, everyone in their best clothes, both nights.”
In contrast, she says, her husband’s family held a small, intimate dinner with no extended family and no reading of the Haggadah. She recalls being particularly disappointed that the afikomen wasn’t hidden for the grandchildren to find.
Over the years, Wagner says she and her husband learned to negotiate and compromise to create meaningful Passover traditions for their children.
Syrtash, author of “How to Survive Your In-Laws” and the upcoming “He’s Just Not Your Type (And That’s a Good Thing),” says couples should try to “have an open mind and remember there’s no such thing as normal. What’s weird to you is normal for him.” Try not to be judgmental, she urges.
When he was unable to get back to his native Montreal for Passover, architect Ian Roth, 35, accepted an invitation to spend Passover with his girlfriend Katy and her family in Denver.
The seder was less traditional and more interpretative than his family’s and the meal was less extravagant than his mother’s, says Roth, but “it was nice just being welcomed. It helped me have a warm feeling towards her and her family.”
Syrtash suggests couples discuss in advance what Passover looks like in their family’s home. Give a head’s-up if expecting a nosy aunt and, if the relationship is serious, discuss what customs you hope to retain or discard in the future, she says.
For couples with a non-Jewish partner, this is especially important. Syrtash recommends preparing the non-Jewish partner on what to expect at a seder.
“Approach it with enthusiasm, and go over a few things like the rituals and story of Passover before he or she gets to the table for the first time,” she says. “It’s a fun, festive holiday and it should feel light.”
In preparation for hosting their own seder someday, Katz and his wife, a Catholic, took an introduction-to-Passover class as well as a Passover cooking class at a synagogue near their Los Angeles home.
“Different people make it easier to share your customs,” he says, “and those are the people you should be with anyway.”
When you are dating, navigating Passover can become a representation of the relationship, says Syrtash, and it can “signify a lot.” But she also says to keep in mind that “Passover is not a wedding. You don’t need a plus-one.”
Because if the relationship doesn’t work out, it’s important to remember there’s always next year in Jerusalem. And mom’s kugel.