BROOKLINE, Mass. -- Since the ninth century, Jews have gathered in their homes each year to read the story of Passover. And since 1952, David Arnow's family had told the story in the same way, out of the same book around the same table.
What had felt "magical" to him about the holiday as a child, the psychologist and author told listeners at the Brookline Booksmith store during a recent reading, "got a routinized feeling" as he became an adult and realized that because the annual Seder was "100 percent fixed, a lot of the magic and a lot of the meaning got squeezed out."
Over the past 18 years that Arnow has been leading Seders in his own family, he decided to do something about that.
Passover, the eight-day period which this year begins at sundown on April 5, commemorates the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. The holiday, which is celebrated at a festive meal called a Seder, is central to Judaism.
"It's the founding story of the Jewish people," said Arnow. "A collection of families goes into Egypt, and out we come as a nation."
But Arnow believes the spiritual drama and human emotion of the story is lost when families sit passively at their dining tables, listening to the story read aloud.
"That's not the way to make the story come alive, to make people think, 'this is my story,'" he said.
He hopes the way that Jews celebrate the transformation of Passover is itself changing, as he explains in his new book, "Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts and Activities" (Jewish Lights Publishing).
Arnow's book is a collection of reflections, activities and ideas for families to consider if they want to create a custom-made Seder experience that is unique to their family. Parts of the book are culled from pamphlets Arnow has written since 1994, at first for friends and family, but later for increasingly large interested audiences.
"The way to make this story come alive for people is not to just read it," he said, but rather to experience it interactively, discuss and debate it vigorously--and even think about doing so seated in small groups in the living room and not around the dining table.
"When people are sitting at the table, it's hard," said Arnow, whose own family Seders typically last for around five hours. "Empty plates are in front of you and the food is not there yet. It's amazing--if you get people sitting in a circle in another room, you have a different dynamic."
Observers of trends in Jewish family life place Arnow's book and others like it in a "second wave" of evolution of the modern Passover Seder.
There are more than 3,000 different haggadahs, the books that outline the structure of the Seder and record the story of the exodus, on the market today, according to Yosef Abramowitz, CEO of Jewish Family & Life!, a multimedia educational organization.
Today, however, Jewish families understand the panoply of choices of haggadahs, but they want to make their Seders even more personalized.
"What is happening now is that there is a second wave of innovation in which resources are being developed to empower parents and families and children to create their own rituals," said Abramowitz.
Many of these rituals include activities that get people out of what Arnow calls "the passive mode" of sitting at a table, reading, and being read to.
At his home, Abramowitz and his family purchased butterfly larvae during the February holiday of Tu B'Shevat, which celebrates nature. He and his children watched them mature and, just before their Passover Seder begins, they will release the butterflies into the outdoors.
"The children understand the idea--not only of transformation, but of freedom," said Abramowitz.
Connecting with Passover as a harbinger of spring is a powerful tool for innovative Seder rituals.
For years, Arnow has grown his own horseradish, which is traditionally part of a Seder, in his garden. When the green shoots of the root vegetable come up, he and his family know spring cannot be far behind.
Arnow has also taken to growing a small pot of barley, which in ancient times was harvested at the time of Passover. Watching the delicate plant grow, and warding off fungus and diseases, connects him to the past in a concrete way, he says.
"I had a feeling of what it was like in ancient times when you depended on this grain for your life. You could understand why there would be a lot of prayer involved," he said.
Innovations and new rituals like these are becoming more common across religious life, say experts.
"People begin to own their own traditions, interpret them, wrestle with them, morph them, make them real to their own experience," said Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
It is no coincidence that Arnow is a lay person and not a rabbi, writing from his own experience about new ways to bring the Passover narrative to life, Kula said.
"He is modeling a kind of non-authoritative authority," he said. But even as people are bringing new rituals--literally--to the table, Kula believes the trend of innovation does not compromise the unifying power of the Passover celebration within the Jewish community at large.
"Seder unites us. The basic ritual unites us. After that, the meaning of it is completely open," he said, "If what we mean by community is thousands and thousands of people all wrestling with the same event, we have unbelievable community."