Friday at sunset marks the first night of Pesach. Each year, Jewish communities in Baltimore and around the world remember and celebrate the Exodus, when Moses led the Jewish people into Jerusalem, escaping slavery and the tyrannical reign of Pharaoh in Egypt.
It is traditional to observe the first two evenings of Pesach with a seder while reading through the Haggadah, the text that narrates the Exodus and informs readers at which points throughout the seder meal that rituals are performed.
While it is unlikely that any two Jewish families conduct their Passover seders in exactly the same way, what many Jewish families have in common is that at one point, there are several young children present at the celebration.
Keeping children of any age attentive and engaged can be difficult, especially these days. Recent studies have linked more time spent in front of screens to experiencing symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This could make sitting still while reading the Haggadah quite a challenge.
Luckily there are many different activities, decorations, snacks and even Haggadot that can make having a Pesach seder engaging, informative and fun for the whole family.
Let the candies flow
Dan and Chana Grove from the Upper Park Heights neighborhood in Baltimore have turned their first night Passover seders into a stimulating, interactive experience that their five children — ranging in age from three to 14 — look forward to each year.
“Our seder is entirely focused on our children,” Chana said, adding that they encourage their children to ask questions throughout the ceremony. Sitting behind “six or seven bowls of various candies and chocolates,” Chana rewards her kids for their questions, no matter how easy or complicated.
“We allow the kids to ask whatever they want. Whenever they ask a question we throw candy at them,” she said.
In addition to keeping the children interested, Dan believes that having fun on Pesach is crucial, that “The point of the seder is not to have a Talmudic discourse or create a thesis; it’s to experience something.”
“In reality, the fun is more important than the substance. We don’t read the Book of Exodus,” Dan said. “The purpose is to create an experiential event that acknowledges both the miraculous nature of the Exodus and the existence of the Jewish people, but also experience this sense of gratitude that we can enhance our relationships to each other and God.”
Laurie and Michael Rosen from Pikesville will host a seder this year where four children under three-and-a-half years will be present. In addition to their own children, Ruby, three, and Spencer, one, Laurie has two cousins who are also three.
Candy and treats can show up to excite children throughout the seder in a number of different ways. Like the Groves, Laurie said her family incorporates snacks throughout the seder.
“We make edible plagues,” Laurie said laughing. “We have frog gummies; for lice we have snowcaps; black licorice is for darkness; and for wild animals we have animal crackers.”
Laurie said the seders before the kids were born were “not as fun.” But now, by incorporating different elements from puppets to masks, the children stay alert.
”We also have plague puppets and masks. There’s a blood mask, a lice mask, ten little finger puppets for each plague,” she said. “Between the candy, the masks and the puppets, it just makes it fun.”
Prepare with care
For Chana Grove, preparation for a Pesach seder provides even more opportunities to include her children. By helping to prepare the home or the meal, the children experience a sense of accomplishment and pride, therefore making them more eager to participate during the seder.
“On one of the entryways into our dining room we hang up two blue sheets and we decorate it with fish, it’s like the splitting of the sea. We’re walking through the sea,” Chana said. Her children cut out and color the fish they use to decorate the sea curtains.
Chana said she is cognizant of the atmosphere she creates leading up to Pesach. She plays Passover-themed music around the home and does her best to keep her own spirit jovial.
“If Passover is all about the stress of cleaning and the stress of getting everything ready, and that’s what your kids hear, that’s what they’re going to feel like Passover is all about,” Chana said. “It’s unlikely they’re going to be super-excited going into the seder because all they hear is how much of a burden this is. The attitude is one of the biggest differences in it. The more excited a parent is going to be, the more excited your children will be.”
The Rosen’s children also make items related to the Passover seder, even at their very young ages.
“We use a Matzah cover that Ruby made when she was a year old,” said Michael Rosen. “It has her hand and foot prints on there. It’s special to our family and we have used it each year.”
Lisa Keys is the editor of Jewish parenting site Kveller.com. She said one of the site’s most popular articles about Passover came last year, when Emily Aronoff Teck wrote “Four Hacks to Make Your Passover seder More Fun.” One of the suggestions was to set up a Make-Your-Own Charoset Bar.
“Having your guests concoct their own charoset is so much fun. On a side table in our dining room, I set up an array of diced fruits, nuts, and a selection of honeys, wines, and juices,” Teck wrote. “Sometimes a few of the grown-ups make a concoction that much more closely resembles sangria than charoset, but, hey, that’s part of the fun!”
Depending on a family’s level of observance, Keys said incorporating technology and videos into the seder, could help promote engagement from kids and adults alike.
“Another idea [from Teck’s article] is to project the Haggadah onto a screen or the wall, so that everyone is looking up in the same direction and is on the same page, so to speak, at the same time,” Keys said.
This year, Kveller released its own Haggadah, after noticing a hole in the Haggadot market.
“We’re celebrating our 10-year anniversary soon, and every year our readers ask, ‘What’s the best Haggadah?’” Keys said. “There are quite a few children’s Haggadahs out there, but we saw a lack in ones that were designed for families, that will engage children as well as adults.”
Written by Elissa Strauss and Gabrielle Birkner, and illustrated by Hane Grace Yagel, “The Kveller Haggadah: A Seder for Curious Kids (And Their Grownups)” is available to download for free on Kveller’s site, and bound copies can be purchased on Amazon.com. At 70 pages, with lots of illustrations, reading through “The Kveller Haggadah” won’t take a family all night, especially since it’s designed “like a choose-your-own-adventure book,” Keys said.
In two recurring supplemental sections called “Memory Lane” and “Top Secret,” the “Kveller Haggadah” provides information about the science of memory and how it is developed, and insights into the stories behind Passover traditions, such as why the number four is so prominent. For those interested in conducting a shorter Seder, these sections can easily be skipped without impacting the rest of the narrative.
Why sit still?
Both Dan and Chana Grove said that the family seders from their childhood were quite different than the ones they host for their children now. Chana said hers had much fewer props, and Dan said the best part of the night were the moments to be with your family, not the seder itself.
“Seder itself was sort of something you suffered through. But being with family and having a good meal, that’s what it was all about,” Dan said. “But this is a totally different experience.”
Taking breaks from reading the Haggadah does not necessarily mean a family has to take attention away from its themes. In addition to the candies, the bags of plagues and the decorative parted sea, Dan disappears momentarily while the rest of his family is reading the Haggadah. When he comes back he dressed as an Israelite and shouts, “It’s time to go.”
“We all get up and run around the house, and we’ll go knock on neighbors’ doors, and tell them ‘It’s time to go,’ and get them to run around with us,” said Chana. “Dan is amazing at leading the seder.”
The Groves estimate they’ve hosted as many as 25 people during previous Passover seders, the majority of them being adults. Although philosophical conversations about the themes of Pesach are not necessarily discouraged, Dan believes the kids having fun should be regarded above all else. If the kids are bored, he said, everyone is bored.
“When the children get excited, it creates a situation where the adults are elevated through a vicarious inner-child experience,” Dan said. “When you see a kid get excited about something you get excited about it as well.”