Is there room in the Passover seder for cowboys, the Emerald City, reality television and “Phantom of the Opera?”
Shari and Jerry Caplan say that there is, and almost every year, they have a house bursting with relatives who agree.
Since 2002, the Caplans have been holding Passover seders designed around a particular theme, to breathe interest and enthusiasm into a tradition thousands of years old. With the pandemic in recession, they are now preparing to host their first in-person themed seder since 2019.
“It started out with a way to engage the kids as they got older,” said Shari Berman Caplan, who lives in Owings Mills with her husband, Jerry.
She explained that, years ago, Passover seders on one side of their family might have involved a relative going on for quite some time in Hebrew, with the assembled guests either not paying attention or falling asleep.
At the opposite extreme, during years when the Caplans would join the other side of their family, these seders would feature very thin Haggadahs with the meal commencing soon after the recitation of the four questions, said Shari Caplan, who attends services at Beth El Congregation of Baltimore.
She felt that they needed a way to create more interest and engagement in the Passover seder.
The Caplans took over the responsibility of hosting the family seders at their house, and they began introducing things like games to help keep their then young children engaged, said Jerry Caplan. As the children started to reach their teenage and young adult years, though, they needed a new way to keep things fresh.
“We were ‘Survivor’ fans,” said Jerry Caplan, referring to the long-running reality television series. “We did ‘Survivor: Egypt,’ where we got dressed up for ‘Survivor.’ It was very low key. We did a lot of immunity challenges, and we played lots of games, and I think from that it snowballed into other themes.
“They liked the idea of that,” Jerry Caplan continued, “because it gave them an interest, it gave them a reason to come and participate.”
Shari Caplan emphasized that none of this translated into skipping any of the reading portions more typical of the average seder.
“We would break up the seder,” Shari Caplan said. “And we read through the entire seder. … We did not leave anything out.”
In fact, Shari Caplan ended up creating her own Haggadah for their seders, pieced together from a number of other Haggadahs she had, with little tidbits and facts around the outer edges about Passovers traditions from all over the world.
This initial “Survivor”-themed seder was held in 2002, said Shari Caplan, and for years afterward they continued planning seders with new takes on the “Survivor” motif. This changed in 2015, when the Caplans organized a seder not themed around “Survivor” at all, but rather on a theme of “black and white.”
“We had black kippahs and white kippahs, and so we had two different teams, and we did the same thing where we had challenges for the kids and fun games,” Shari Caplan said. “And everything was revolving around black and white.”
From then on, the choice of themes for an upcoming seder would draw from a much wider array of possible sources of inspiration than a single reality series. Themes of other past years have included the beach, Disney, the “Wizard of Oz in Egypt” and “wild, wild Western Wall,” Shari Caplan said, with guests often coming in appropriate costumes.
Every year, Shari Caplan will also rewrite the Passover story to better match with that year’s theme, she said. The seders became so popular with the family that the Caplans began running out of room in their house, Jerry Caplan said.
The themes are chosen by Shari and Jerry Caplan and their children, said Shari Caplan. Over the years, they have assembled a long list of ideas for themes they would like to use.
The rest of the family learns what that year’s theme will be in the official invitation, said Shari Caplan, which family members appear to eagerly anticipate.
“We even have a niece in New York who will start asking us in January, ‘When are you sending out the invitations?’” Shari Caplan said. “‘We have to start working on our costumes.’”
The pandemic canceled what would have been the 2020 seder, while the 2021 seder was moved to Zoom, said Jerry Caplan. That seder was pajama-themed, added Shari Caplan, with attendees logging on while dressed in nightwear.
The Caplans have spent two and a half years planning for the 2022 seder, Shari Caplan said. This year’s theme is “haunted,” noted Jerry Caplan, adding that they’ve written a parody of a song from “Phantom of the Opera,” and another written to the tune of “Monster Mash.”
“We have to start six weeks in advance to start decorating,” Jerry Caplan said.
“And cooking,” Shari Caplan added.
When asked if they have any advice for a family interested in doing their own themed seder, Jerry Caplan joked, “I have to charge them first.”