Making the Seder with Children
by Rabbi Debra Orenstein
The seder was designed to engage our kids. The ancient rabbis encouraged parents to distribute nuts and other treats on Passover eve, to keep children awake and interested (Pesachim 109a). They sought to pique and promote curiosity through questions, special foods, unusual dining practices, and (in the case of bargaining for the afikomen) out-and-out bribery.
How well do we engage our children today? Is Passover exciting for them? How can we make the seder a wondrous experience that will cause children to ask the biblical question attributed to the wise child: “What is the meaning behind all these decrees, laws, and rules that Adonai our God has commanded [concerning Passover]?” (Deuteronomy 6:20)
Parents can begin by avoiding the negative. Even the most exciting events – and sometimes especially those; think “birthday parties” – can cause melt-downs. We can guard against the usual triggers for bad behavior. Instead of asking young children to sit still for hours, allow for breaks that will engage them. Let children be in charge of the ritual handwashing. They can get up from the table, stretch their legs, and provide towels and washing cups for everyone. Children can be charged with listening carefully for a particular cue, so that they know exactly when to open the door for Elijah. They can prepare a play to answer the four questions that the youngest one poses. Even if you are not Sephardic, you might want to take on the custom of lashing one another with scallions to demonstrate slavery. It is a good icebreaker for adults and a sure-fire favorite with kids. Then march around the dining table and sing “Mi Chamocha” to simulate passing through water on dry land.
Having handled shpilkes (Yiddish for “ants in the pants”), it is equally important to handle hunger pangs and exhaustion. Tired and hungry adults aren’t always at their best, either, so it is good for everyone to consider the timing and pacing the evening. Can you begin the seder earlier? (Those who usually participate in the evening service at synagogue before the seder might elect to have a small minyan at home.) Can you enforce naps prior to the seder? (The promise of an outrageously-late bedtime is often sufficient motivation.) Consider serving a salad, roasted vegetables, or baked potatoes at the time of karpas (the dipping of the parsley), so that people aren’t tempted to rush the seder just to get to the meal. The blessing we recite over parsley gives thanks for “the fruit of the land,” and covers various vegetables.
Once you have adjusted your evening to avoid the pitfalls of hunger, tiredness, and excessive confinement, it becomes easier to create a compelling seder. The trick is finding the balance between maintaining the “old favorites” (be they songs, stories, or readings) and bringing in new melodies and fresh perspectives.
Some seder customs are beloved precisely because they repeat from year to year, creating rich associations and memories for multiple generations. The precise customs will be different in every family, but the basic approach is the same – and obvious. Don’t mess with them!
While repetition holds tremendous charm and appeal, particularly for children, it is also true that it can become tiresome. If you are repeating customs, explanations, or readings by rote and without much enthusiasm, then try delving more deeply into the meaning behind your practice. What is this “boring” practice trying to communicate? Where does it leave off? How might you deepen it, follow it up, supplement it, and/or apply it to your family’s concerns today? Sometimes a small adjustment in a custom – or even just some thoughtful exploration of it – yields big results.
I tired of the melody to “Avadim Hayinu” that most Jews sing. Then, Rabbi Joshua Levine-Grater led a seminar for the Los Angeles Board of Rabbis in which he sang it very slowly, like a dirge. Suddenly, everyone in the room felt the pain of the statement “avadim hayinu” (we were slaves). We were impelled to explore the bitter, hopeless feelings that came up, and the literal and spiritual slavery that persists today.
If children in your household have grown bored or complacent with your afikomen custom, then shake it up. Let the parents do the hiding, if they usually seek. Surprise your children by playing in earnest, instead of treating the afikomen game as a pro forma exercise.
Another example: When singing “Dayyenu” this year, take some time to explore what actually is enough for us. Some people dismiss the sentiments this well-known song expresses as insincere or even absurd. “If God had parted the Sea, but not led us through it on dry land –dayyenu; it would have been enough for us.” Really?! It seems obvious that we would want to cross to safety. But it should be equally obvious that parting the Sea is miracle enough to merit giving thanks – regardless of what happens next. If we must have everything we want before we are grateful, what is the meaning of gratitude? Each step along the way is its own miracle which, for that moment, if we can accept it without grasping for the next moment, is enough.
In these difficult times, it’s especially good and important to give thanks for partial victories and incomplete blessings. If we have a job but not a home (or vice versa), dayyenu. If we have our health, but not economic security, dayyenu. Of course, you can pray for more, work for more, and negotiate for more. But we must teach our children that gratitude for the aspects of life in which we have been blessed doesn’t result from abundance. Abundance results from gratitude for the aspects of life in which we have been blessed.
Like everything else in life, we get out of the seder what we put into it. Ask your children – and your guests – to prepare for the seder in advance by gathering quotes or poems about freedom; by bringing a symbol of their freedom (or spiritual enslavement) to the seder table; by researching one prayer or paragraph and leading a discussion about it; by telling the story of an “exodus moment” that occurred in their own lives.
What really engages kids most is seeing their parents engaged. If the seder is exclusively a “children’s program,” kids will outgrow it before they reach Bar Mitzvah. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of heartbreaking examples of enslavement for us to reflect – and act – upon. (Visit the Freeing Slaves page to learn more.)We can also dare to be personal, to share with our children, as well as the adults around the table, our own relationship to the ultimate issues raised by the seder: What does it mean to be spared? What does it mean to be free? What does it mean to be redeemed? The challenge is to delve deeply enough into our own autobiographies and the Jewish national story to fulfill the words of the Haggadah: “in every generation” – that is to say, parents, grandparents, and children – “each of us should see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt.”
That’s not a matter of reciting the story; that’s knowing, embracing, pretending, imagining, and living it. That’s absorbing it into our consciousness and our dreams.
My sister tells the story of a visit to the pediatrician when her son was an infant. She was made to wait for hours with a screaming baby – to the point that she read every dog-eared magazine in the office and all the posters on the walls, multiple times. She stared for what seemed like an eternity at yellowing infant cpr instructions, hung crooked on the corkboard, as her son wailed. By the time she left, screaming baby and antibiotics for his ear infection in hand, she had resolved never to return to that poorly-run office.
Later that night, my nephew, for reasons not apparently related either to his infection or to its treatment, suddenly stopped breathing. Having stared at the bulletin board in the doctor’s office for such a long stretch, my sister knew just what to do. She leapt into action and provided infant cpr until the paramedics came. The emergency medical technician told her, “You’re very lucky; if you hadn’t known exactly what to do, your son would not have made it.”
Needless to say, my sister stuck with her pediatrician.
The baby of whom I write is now in his mid-thirties. My sister never tires of telling this story. I have heard it many times and am always riveted. This is the story of my family, of being rescued, of God protecting us, even when we don’t know, understand, or necessarily invite divine protection. So, by the way, is the Passover story.
If you tell your family miracle stories around the table, in conjunction with the national miracle story of Passover, your kids will pay attention. They may even outlast you.
For more ideas on engaging seder participants of all ages, see Seder Solutions.
A very happy and meaningful Pesach to you and your kids!