On a night that is different from all others, I’ve been known to hop like a frog, pitch a tent in the living room, and whack relatives in the rear with a bunch of leeks.
True, these ploys don’t completely aid in re-experiencing the Exodus at our seders, or understanding the lives of slaves (though we do, of course, also journey through the Haggadah).
But the kids? You’ve never seen such a bunch of happy frogs.
And now, after a dozen or so years of leading the first-night seder at my in-laws’ home, I’m ready to divulge a few secrets of how to involve young children in the evening’s events, as well as how to liberate adults so they can focus on the text — at least for a few minutes at a time. Some of my favorite parents joined in the conversation.
Friends tell me of many projects that children can prepare in advance: name cards, Passover placemats, centerpieces, mini-Pesach plates for each guest. If they are old enough, children can write up a holiday-themed skit for themselves to perform.
They can also aid in meal preparation. Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, aka “Ima on (and off) the Bima” emails that last year for the seders, she and her 7-year-old made a traditional treat, “huevos haminados, a Sephardic slow-cooked egg, that was both beautiful and tasty.” You can read about it here:http://imabima.blogspot.com/2009/04/huevos-haminados.html
You won’t find this course listed in any traditional Haggadah, but I’ve come to appreciate my mother-in-law’s custom of serving up a generous crudite to early guests. You can also set out snacks of cut-up vegetables and dips on the seder table itself, along with the parsley and salt water. I don’t know how your children behave when they’re hungry, but a famished Joel (my 5-year-old) could easily qualify as an 11th plague.
Five Questions, Four Tongues
The Four Questions are specifically designed to engage children. So this one’s for the grown-ups (although in my experience the children enjoy the novelty too, as long as they get a turn first): In my family, after the children grew up, and before the new ones were born, we couldn’t figure out who should recite the Ma Nishtana.
Our solution? I sang one question in Japanese, my cousin-in-law sang another in Spanish, and my brother-in-law rendered one in German, and everyone sang the last one together in English. In another ritual, in recent years, I’ve sometimes invited older children and adults to bring a Fifth question.
Plagued By The Sillies
When I was a child, the seder leader would chant the list of plagues, and we would repeat them, and extract a drop of wine for each one. Then we moved on. No more. Now, every Judaica shop sells plague puppets, and in many families, children fashion their own version of each plague, using for example, red food coloring for the blood, and rice for the lice.
We have had success at our seders by sharing children’s drawings of the plagues. Because we are not religiously observant, we have sent our children to work on these drawings, with an accompanying adult or older child, while the rest of us turn our attention to the Magid, the Storytelling. But these drawings could also be crafted in advance.
Our seders would also not be complete without our choreographed Frog Song, a sort of Jewish chicken dance, with lyrics about an infestation of these hopping green amphibians (See: Plague No. 2). We usually culminate the show by tossing our entire collection of plastic and plush frogs at the older guests.
Out Of Egypt
Two years ago, in an effort to help my children relive the Exodus from Egypt, I pitched a toy tent in my in-laws’ grand living room. This was to be their home in the “desert,” their transitional quarters until the Jews arrived in the Promised Land. It was also a site where the children would play with Pesach-related games, while we adults focused on the Haggadah. Minutes later, the tent began to rock, shaking with the hysterical laughter of three children under 6.
Others have had better luck by asking young children to pack backpacks with their most cherished items, those which they wouldn’t leave behind in Egypt. Rabbi Karen Medwed Reiss suggests passing around a mirror when we recite the line in the Haggadah that “each individual should feel as though he or she had actually been redeemed from Egypt.”
One year, in a project that worked well for toddler-aged guests, I handed out blocks. While we sang of our slavery in “Avodim Hayinu,” the children built pyramids.
And there’s my personal favorite, borrowed from Sephardic tradition, which helps everyone inhabit the slave-master dichotomy. Guests strike other guests with leeks or celery or scallions, while simultaneously racing around the seder table and singing a spirited round of “Dayenu.” It’s great fun, I promise. Especially if you manage to get behind someone with whom you’ve recently quarreled.
Afikomen Hunt, Improved?
Perhaps, more than any other part of the seder, children adore the afikomen hunt, the search for the “dessert matzah.” My daughter Talia reminisced for weeks last year about her victory in finding the matzah buried between the couch cushions.
But it seems there’s always room for improvement. Rabbi Karen Medwed Reiss, who has three children under 7, gives the younger set individual afikomen bags and sticker packets during the Magid, the storytelling. While the adults read from the Haggadahs, the children decorate their bags. Later, the adults fill the bags with candy and tuck them around the backyard. The “hunters” search the lawn and the “adults can linger over dinner a little, and have some of the serious conversations,” says Rabbi Reiss.
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