For kids, Passover is one of the highlights of the Jewish year. For parents, it is one of the greatest opportunities of the year. It is such a busy time -- cleaning the house, cooking the food, preparing for guests, reading up about the holiday, etc. It can also be an extremely emotional time, with family feelings rising to the fore, and a spiritual time, with the themes of freedom and redemption entering our daily lives.
How can we take advantage of this incredible opportunity to create lasting Jewish memories for our children?
I have divided my suggestions and ideas into three areas: goals, attitudes, and activities:
As adults, our goals may include learning something new, continuing family traditions, connecting more deeply to Jewish meaning, or, for many, simply surviving! Aside from these, what is your ‘Jewish parenting' goal for the Passover Seders? What do you want your children to gain?
The way I see it, the primary goals for our younger children are (a) to give them an exciting and fun Jewish experience, (b) to teach them the basics of the Passover story, and (c) to develop their appreciation of the value of freedom.
For older kids, our primary goals are (a) to include them in meaningful discussions they can relate to, (b) to give them the feeling of being an important part of the Jewish people and (c) to reinforce favorite family traditions that make the Seder memorable for everyone.
I encourage you to make your own short list of goals. The important thing is to plan realistic goals in advance so you can manage the Seder confidently and with focus.
Passover can seem to kids a highlight of the year -- but that depends on you.
Think about the time leading up to Passover last year. What attitude towards the upcoming holiday do you think your children saw in you? Kids may or may not absorb the things we tell them, but they always sense our attitudes. Whether Passover will seem to your kids as a highlight of the year to look forward to or another Jewish ritual they have to uphold will depend on the attitudes they see in you. Make sure your children pick up messages of excitement, anticipation and Jewish pride rather than harried obligation, stress and anxiety. While it is important that the Passover cleaning is done properly, it is also important that the pre-holiday feeling in your home is one your children will want one day for their own homes. When things get hectic in the pre-Passover rush, it is important that children don't get yelled at ("Get back here with that bagel!").
How to best clean the house and get all the cooking done on time? The subject is beyond the scope of this article (and beyond most mere mortals), but avoiding the temptation to procrastinate can keep the stress down (so can a glass of wine or two, by the way). Also watch out for other causes of stress at holiday times such as high expectations, new clothes the kids have to keep clean and the recurring "challenges" visiting in-laws thoughtfully provide for the benefit of our personal growth.
During the year, Jewish life is often about making sacrifices, terrorism in Israel and community obligations. But not on Passover. This is the night that God Himself took us out of slavery and professed his love for us. This is a night we are all kings -- a night of hope and redemption, a night of appreciation and trust. If you can project these attitudes (even a little bit!), they will filter through to your children.
The enemy of Passover is passivity. The Rabbis who compiled the Haggadah purposely got the children involved, and so should we. Instead of one person reading the Haggadah while everyone else sits silently the entire evening, everyone should participate and enjoy.
How can we do this?
Ask lots of questions (and give prizes or treats as incentives). Examples are: How is this night different from other nights? Why are things different? Why do we eat only Matzah? What is freedom? Why do we eat Maror, the bitter herbs? Why do we dip our foods twice? Why do we lean? Let your children know there are answers to these questions and that your traditions are meaningful. If you don't know the answers to questions like these, take the opportunity this year to read up. There are some great Haggadahs available. There are classes you can attend in your area and, of course, there is always the internet. [Ed. Our favorite for Passover is the Holidays section of Aish.com.]
Even more important than asking your kids questions is encouraging and rewarding them when they ask good questions. That's what the Ma Nishtana is all about (see article on page 14). Educator Rebecca Rubinstein suggests going around the table and having everyone complete the following sentence without too much thinking: "Freedom is...." Many kids will answer typically: "Not having to go to school!" "Doing whatever I want!" "Staying up late." This is a good way to get to know your children, and get them to think about what freedom really is -- the ability to do what we really want to do, what's deeply important to us.
Fun Ideas for the Seder
One of the main things we should think about is to how to make the Seder fun for the kids. Here are a few ideas.
- Tell parts of the story with mistakes (The King of Egypt was called "Philip") and have the kids listen carefully and correct them.
- Prepare props for the plagues (plastic baseballs for hail, toy grasshoppers for locusts, sunglasses for darkness, etc).
- During Had Gadya, have someone [or everyone!] do the animal effects -- the children will love it
- Use a banana (or something similar) to pretend the phone is ringing and Pharaoh is calling. Conduct a conversation or have the children do so.
- Have an ongoing quiz, with prizes for right answers.
- Hand out prizes or treats to people who ask or answer good questions or who find references to freedom in the Haggadah (based on Shimon Apisdorf's Passover Survival Kit). Ahead of time, ask the older kids to prepare mock news reports that they can give a few times throughout the night about the ‘latest happenings' in the leaving of Egypt.
- [For more ideas see "Games and Tips for the Seder"
With a little planning, the Passover Seders can be the highlight of the Jewish year. Keep in mind that the main Jewish aim is to get the children involved in the Seder, asking questions and having fun. And don't forget that if you are relaxed, positive and happy, the kids will internalize those feelings as well.
This article originally appeared in American Jewish Spirit - the magazine for inspired Jewish living.