Passing Over, Crossing Under

By Marjorie Ingall

Published April 07, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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Are you so sick of me meditating on how having small children changes the nature of everything? Well, too bad. It does! It’s like going through life thinking that something was solid, and suddenly you discover it’s a gas. Passover is a case in point. For decades we had My Zayde’s Seder (aka “humminah-humminah-humminah,” the sound of Aramaic droning), then suddenly there was a plump matzo ball baby on my lap, with thighs like meaty, meaty lamb shanks. And things subtly, quietly started to shift. Having a baby at the table changes the gravitational pull. Instead of placing side bets about which elderly relative will be first to spill an entire cup of red wine onto the white tablecloth, people make eyes at the newcomer.

And the next year, when Josie was old enough to play with the plush Bag O’ Plagues, the Seder started to twitch and change, welcoming her in. The year after that, the no-longer-baby could scream “Nooo!” when asked, “And what did Pharaoh say after Moses said, ‘Let my people go’?”And that year, still more of the Seder was aimed at her. The amount of singing grew; the humminah-humminah receded. We were excited to engage her and teach her the ways of our people, such as beating each other with scallions during “Dayenu,” which she enjoyed immensely. And unbeknown to Josie, unbeknown to the Manischewitz-swilling assemblage, there was another baby marinating inside me like a little gefilte fish.

Last year, with Zayde gone and a bunch of new baby cousins (including Maxine) at the table, I led the Seder for the first time. And I completely started over. We used a different Haggadah (Elie M. Gindi’s “Family Haggadah: A Seder for All Generations”) and cut the humminah mercilessly, down to the (shank) bone. I made everyone a “Sederrific Coloring Book” full of pictures of plagues and ritual objects to decorate, and made centerpieces out of handfuls of colored pencils. (Yeah, my peeps write on yom tov. That’s how we roll.) We used the little tin milk bottles that had held flowers at Jonathan’s and my wedding to hold the pencils. During the ritual washing of the hands, I put on one of Josie’s favorite songs, “I’ve Got To Be Clean,” by the (coincidentally quite Jewy) rock band Guster (the lyrics go, in part, “We gotta be clean/Like the dishes we’ve seen/Or a fresh nectarine/Or some laundry that’s beeeeen/through the washing machine…”). I added jokes and opportunities for spontaneous discussion of the meaning of freedom.

I found that the experience of writing the ceremony made me think about the Seder and its meaning in a way I hadn’t for years. Even though I was editing like mad, cutting the traditional text and adding goofy stuff I found online (like a rhyming version of The Four Questions in the style of Dr. Seuss, written by Eliezer Segal, a professor at the University of Calgary) and folk songs that Josie learned at Gani, I was also asking myself fundamental questions about what a Seder is and what the holiday means. Thank Josie for that. Kids make you question exactly what you think Judaism’s values are and how you want to convey them.

This year, Josie is 4 and full of questions: “Why is the sky blue?” “Who made the planets, and how?” “Who was the first person who ever lived, and who were that person’s mommy and daddy?” “When people adopt babies, where do they get them?” She’s also at an age when the world is neatly divided into good and evil. Her buddy Maxwell and all the boys in her class are obsessed with superheroes — larger-than-life, steroidal-looking manly men defeating dastardly “bad guys.” Josie and her girlfriends are all about being princesses and ballerinas and mommies, ultra-feminine exemplars of purity and goodness. (And as a mommy, I can only say: She has no idea.)

All this gender stuff and all these 4-year-old questions about good and evil have made me think especially hard about the four sons part of the Haggadah. First off: the gender issue. I used to mock the relentless PC-ness of foremother-inclusive prayer. I appreciated the gesture intellectually, but when daveners drove in that “Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah” like a hulking SUV, I rolled my eyes. It left skid marks. It ruined the rhythm. It wasn’t the way I’d learned to pray. But now, seeing up close how my little girl views the world as such a gendered place and doesn’t see how the generic and universal pronoun “he” has any relevance to her, I want shout-outs to girls throughout all texts. Or, at the very least, a little gender neutrality. So our “four sons” are now “the four children.”

And as a parent, I’m humorlessly troubled by the designation of the “wicked child.” Does asking “Why did God do all this stuff for you?” rather than “Why did God do all this stuff for us?” make a child bad? I realize I’m being terribly literal here, but again, kids are terribly literal. (That’s why Josie doesn’t understand that the purportedly universal pronoun “he” includes her.) Growing up is all about learning separation; a baby doesn’t know that she and her mother are two different entities. “You” and “we” is tough to figure out! But as children grow, they do learn, and our job as parents is to encourage independence while teaching them our values and the skills they need to become moral, loving, self-sufficient yet connected adults. Right now, Josie’s all about testing and fearing her independence — sometimes simultaneously. (“I want a sleepover at Bubbe’s! I’m scared of a sleepover at Bubbe’s!”) Boundary pushing is a normal part of growing up. And I don’t want her labeled “wicked” for trying to determine what the rules are, who the “we” and the “other” are, what wickedness really is — because she’s working hard to figure it out. Hey, I’m working hard to figure it out.

Most importantly, I never want her to think there are bad questions. I never want her to be afraid to ask me things. (I just reserve the right to a) say no and b) revert to “Because I’m the Mommy, that’s why.” But I digress.) The very idea of labeling children “the wise one,” “the wicked one,” “the simple one” and “the one who doesn’t know how to ask” reeks of “Breakfast Club” reductionism. (And I realize I have invoked ’80s teen movies for two columns in a row. Hey, we can’t help our seminal intellectual influences. John Hughes is my Martin Buber. At the end of “The Breakfast Club,” the five kids who’ve spent the day in detention together realize that the way they’ve been neatly classified in the school hierarchy, the way they’ve always seen themselves and are still seen by the principal, is flat-out wrong. “You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions,” they write to him. “But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.” Truth is truth, even if it shows up in a bad New Wave haircut. We’re all sometimes wise, sometimes wicked, sometimes simple and sometimes unable to ask.)

This year, Max is old enough to whack people with a scallion. Josie actually may succeed in asking the Four Questions in Hebrew. (But no pressure!) Neither of them is old enough to really get nuance. Why did God kill all the Egyptian firstborns? If God hardens your heart, why should you be punished for it? Why didn’t Moses get to charge with his people into the Promised Land, the way a quarterback gets butt slapped and high fived after he leads his team to victory? Why didn’t Moses get the big bucket of ice cubes and Gatorade dumped on him? Can we talk some more about Miriam?

These questions will come later. Our Seder will evolve to let us ask them. And I hope we’ll always have the kind of Seder, and the kind of home, that allows kids to ask.

Write to Marjorie at

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