Growing up in an American home as a Persian Jew, there’s Farsi phrase that sticks out to me: “Daste shomâ dard nakone,” which quite literally translates to “may your hand not hurt.” In other words, it’s a way of saying thank you to someone when you want to acknowledge their hard work. To me, it is the essence of hosting culture — something that has been ingrained in me since childhood.
Whether I was going to Shabbat at my grandparents’ house or helping my mom set up for Thanksgiving, I have attended my fair share of dinner parties. For the uninitiated: Hosting is huge in Persian culture and can be used as a barometer of respect. One may be deeply judged for how well they set up and their ability to host. (Even as a college student, I always seem to be hosting and having my friends over, either for study sessions or watch parties!)
Now, with Passover fast approaching (one of the ultimate Jewish hosting events), here are a few rules from my playbook. If you keep these in mind, you’ll make the best guest at a Persian seder!
1. Never show up early or too on time
There is an ongoing joke in the west coast Persian community that PST stands for Persian Standard time. Typically, it is very normal and accepted to show up anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours late and still be considered on time. It can even be seen as disrespectful to the host if you show up early to the event, indicating that you are ignorant of the amount of work they are putting into it. (The last 30 minutes before the invite time can be crucial for prep and setting up.) It is better to be fashionably late than too early.
Disclaimer: This rule is subjective and should be applied based on knowledge of your host!
2. Don’t show up empty-handed
It is a major taboo in a Persian home to show up “dast khali,” which literally translates to “empty-handed.” The gift doesn’t have to be anything exorbitant: A bottle of wine, liquor, kosher for Passover dessert (this recipe my cousin makes every year is always a hit) or a nicely potted orchid always does the trick.
I have very vivid memories of going shopping for Passover with my mom and being tasked with reminding her to buy a boxed bottle of Chivas Regal to gift our seder hosts. For me, the silver box is synonymous with an upcoming/looming dinner invite.
3. Take your shoes off!!
As a child, I was always confused when I saw my non-Persian peers keep their outside shoes on in their home. I personally find it to be very odd (and even a little gross). Most Persian (or Eastern!) homes will ask you to take your shoes off when entering. In a more casual setting, it is very normal to have “dampahee,” or house shoes or slippers. If you’re unsure of what your host would prefer, just ask when you arrive. Regardless of the outcome, you’ll be showing respect for the host and the home.
4. Dress to impress
There is quite literally no such thing as a “casual” Persian event. (I have even been to a couple black tie-adjacent seders.) A good rule of thumb is to dress in semi-formal attire. Cocktail dresses, jumpsuits or dress pants with a dress shirt and tie are appropriate. I love getting to dress up for seder season, whether it be for Passover or Rosh Hashanah. So why not use a seder invite as an excuse to take yourself shopping?
A cautionary tale: I have a vivid memory of my cousin inviting a non-Persian couple to a Persian event. The boyfriend was the only person wearing jeans and a t-shirt in a room full of slacks, dress shirts and ties. When in doubt, it is better to be overdressed versus underdressed.
5. Prepare for “Dayenu” warfare
“Dayenu” is the highlight of any Mizrahi seder. For those who don’t know, we all chant and sing “Dayenu” as we run around hitting each other with green onions. I remember one year, my cousin brought out a huge leek and we all started dying of laughter. Rule of thumb: if they are older than you, gently tap them with the green onion. If they are your immediate family or younger than you, then it is free rein. For example, my sister and I go feral each year hitting each other as hard as we can in spite of my mom protesting “don’t get onion on this, I’ll have to get it dry cleaned!”
6. Pace yourself
After nearly two decades, my sister and I continue to make the rookie mistake of filling up on appetizers before the main course begins. For those who have never been to a Persian dinner party, most begin with an elaborate spread of appetizers that can often be confused for the main course. Don’t be fooled!
If the host sees you enjoying their food, they will not stray away from putting another serving on your plate — no matter how much you insist that it’s not necessary. My mom is notorious for this. If you ask for a second serving, you’ll be getting four.
This is mostly due to “taarof,” a huge part of Persian culture and a key to being a good dinner guest and host. While there is no direct English translation for taarof, the general concept is about polite pleasantries and the basic back-and-forth. Taarof can apply to anything from receiving a gift to getting another serving of food, and it can easily be explained through the example of paying for the check at dinner. When you’re out to dinner with someone and the check arrives, usually you’ll both insist on paying for it. That’s taarof. At dinner parties or seders, it is customary and normal to politely turn down an offer for food or drink. Despite turning down the offer countless times, you will still get another serving of food or a glass of tea. So just lean into it!
7. Explicitly express gratitude and thanks
Typically, this is done the day after the event and can be as simple as shooting a text. (However, I remember my mom always called the host to thank them for the seder and a great meal.) A simple but timely follow-up message is a great way to recognize the work of your host and to solidify your spot at the next seder! Plus, it really is the little things that mean the most. A five-minute phone call can make someone’s day!
In the end, these tips are more general guidelines than strict rules, so don’t stress out. Seders are intimate and special celebrations of religion and culture, and you’ve been invited to one because the host wants you to be a part of it! These “rules” can be applied to many situations like Shabbat dinner invites, meeting the parents, and more. Above all else, just relax and have a happy Passover!