The Seder, Hands On
Wed, 04/04/2012

Mandarin Ice Cubes And Cups Of Tomato Juice

Sharon Richter, Special to the Jewish Week

Running from store to store for the various food items I need for the seders, shopping, cooking and cleaning, I try hard to not lose sight  of the biblical obligation to teach my  children about the story of Pesach.

Just as I would never go on a trip without considering what I need to pack and how I want to maximize the experience, I need to prepare for  the seder way before arriving  at the yom tov table.

My husband and I designate an evening a few weeks before Pesach to begin preparing. We look through  the Haggadah as well as  notes from previous years, deciding on an approach appropriate for the ages and stages of our children and guests. We read the beginning of the Book of Exodus — with various commentaries — and the Maggid section of the Haggadah.

We want “Maggid” — the story of G-d’s intervention, redemption and involvement in our lives — to be the favorite and most memorable part of the seder.

We consider the following: What are the values that we would like to emphasize? Do we have adequate materials accessible to review and prepare? How can we best meet the needs of our 6-year-old daughter?  Our 27-year-old nephew?

Our daughter helped create placecard settings. She decorated them with pyramids and matzahs. Her eyes lit up when she  received costume jewelry; we explained that the Jews left Egypt “b’rechush gadol,” with lots of wealth

We asked our nephew if he would serve as a waiter when we reached the plague of blood.  He entered the dining room with an apron and a tray filled with cups, some filled with tomato juice and others with water. He asked each person at the table if they were an Egyptian or a Jew, and served them accordingly.

A few days before Pesach, we encourage the children to begin to think about questions for seder night. “Ma Nishtana” sets the tone for the asking of questions at the seder, encouraging children to ask. Toward this end, we prepare wrapped taffies with printed question mark stickers for every question asked.

Part of our “luggage” for our family journey at the seder is a huge duffle bag, more accurately a “Maggid bag” that continues to expand each year. We shop online and at dollar stores for appropriate props.

A few examples:

♦ To help explain that the Egyptians took away the straw while demanding the same quota of bricks to be produced, my husband wears a  Pharaoh mask and uses  potato sticks for straw as he dramatically tells the story.

♦ As we describe the plague of boils, we pull apart marshmallows and stick them on our faces, arms and necks. The marshmallows are then distributed to the children who thoroughly enjoy sticking them on themselves-and then eating them

♦ For hail, we make the easiest Pesach recipe ever. We buy an extra ice cube and place two mandarin orange slices (drained from a can) in each cube. We fill with water and freeze. We use this prop when describing how the hail had fire in the middle and nonetheless did not melt, a miracle within a miracle.

When we focus primarily on making the seder meaningful and memorable, the prepartation for Pesach takes on an entirely new meaning. By transmitting core values and beliefs in a joyous and positive environment, the taste of the afikoman lasts long after the seder is over.

Sharon Richter, a resident of Riverdale, is associate principal for Judaic studies at SAR Academy.

A Passover Custom That Can Be Skipped

Marga Hirsch, Special to The Jewish Week

My family has added a new custom to our seder: jumping rope after the meal, before eating the afikoman and saying the blessing over the meal.

Youngsters and older family members alike go out to the patio as they finish eating, and take turns jumping and turning rope for the others. Over the years, we’ve challenged the kids to make up jumping rhymes along the lines of “Pharaoh, Pharaoh, let my people go! How many times will you say ‘no’? 1,2,3,4 ...”

As with other minhagim (customs), numerous symbolic explanations have attached to a historic event. The rope resembles the whips with which the Egyptians beat the slaves. We have the last laugh, turning the whip into a plaything. When thrown on the ground, the rope resembles Moses' staff, turned into a snake. Jumping into the turning rope requires courage, like the Bible’s Nachshon stepping into the sea of reeds.

Our favorite symbolic reason comes from a midrash in the Zohar about King David and a frog:

King David was strolling in his garden strumming his harp and singing psalms. A frog sitting at the side of the path began to croak along. King David, who could speak the language of animals, but who was very vain, said to the frog, “Frog! I am known as the ‘sweet singer of Zion.’ How dare you croak while l am singing?”

“King David,” answered the frog. “It is true you are the sweet singer of Zion. But when you sing your psalms, you serve God only with your voice. In Egypt, we frogs served God with our entire bodies. It wasn't easy to cover the land, invading homes, jumping on Pharaoh’s bed and his head and his toes and his nose. People beat at us with brooms and stomped on us with their feet. But we knew what God wanted of us and we did it.”

King David was chastened and invited the frog to sing with him.

At the seder, after we sing Birkat HaMazon, we continue singing Hallel, the Psalms of David, serving God with our voices. Is it not appropriate that we also go outside and jump rope and serve God with our entire bodies, as the frogs did in Egypt?

Our custom originated in 1968, when there was a lunar eclipse on the night of the seder. (Because Pesach falls on the full moon of the vernal equinox, if there is a lunar eclipse, it must fall on Pesach, unless it is a Jewish leap year, in which case the eclipse falls on Purim.)

The seder included four boys of bar mitzvah age and two little girls. While the adults lingered over coffee, the kids went outside to see the eclipse. When they were called back in at about 11 p.m., the boys said everyone should come outside, the eclipse was at its peak. Meanwhile, the girls had become bored of the moon and were jumping rope.

Before we went back inside, everyone either jumped or turned rope for others. We returned to the table, finished the Haggadah, and continued singing for two hours. The next morning, everyone who had been at the seder was at shul, and all agreed it had been the best seder ever. What made the difference? Jumping rope! So we've been doing it every year since then.

Marga Hirsch is librarian at Park Avenue Synagogue.