Last year was our first Passover in our new house. Nearing the holiday, the dining room was still piled high with moving boxes. Since the seders fell on the weekend, all of my husband’s family flocked to Toronto. With my parents coming from Montreal, we would number nearly 30 with nine children between the ages of two and 14, including my two step-kids. My in-laws had begun researching rental halls for our large group but I wanted a more heimish yontif (homey holiday). I scratched my head staring at our table for eight and stacks of boxes. Then, the solution came to me: “We’ll have a symposium!” If we reclined ancient Greek style on the floor -– returning to the original inspiration for the Passover seder -– we could fit our sizable crew into our living / dining room and inaugurate our home not only hosting our first seder, just a few months shy of our one-year wedding anniversary, but taking on the mantle from our parents’ generation for the first time.
With the logistics resolved in a symbolic fashion, together with my Jewish Studies professor brother-in-law and my Philosophy professor husband, we brainstormed what core elements were needed to make it a truly different night, satisfying both our parents and our children at the same time. A few factors guided our choices: staying true to our values about justice and compassion, and, keeping everyone well fed!
While we’re a Jewishly knowledgeable bunch, we’re “spirit of the law” rather than “letter of the law” people, so some of our seder interventions won’t work for the more halachically-inclined (those who strictly follow Jewish law). I doled out easy assignments ahead of time and planned interactive moments throughout, including the illusive “Part Two” after the meal which many families (including my own) often pass-over.
Here are highlights from our kid-friendly, interactive, progressive seder:
BACK TO BASICS
To create our symposium-style seder, I pulled together low benches and end-tables from around our house with lots of pillows on the floor and against the walls for comfortable reclining. Our e-vite announced: “BYOP: Bring Your Own Pillows,” explaining that we were going heavy on the fourth question this year. “On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining but on this night, we all recline.” It’s always seemed counter-intuitive that we dined very formally, sitting properly at dining room table while chanting the four questions. (FYI, grandparents had seats at the table on one end of the room or the couch on the other end.) Miraculously, only one pillow got hit with grape juice. Be sure to get small plates that will fit on the narrow benches.
LET THEM HAVE NOSHIES
We planned a snack-heavy seder to stave off hunger and allow us to chew on content without a race to the finish line. Even the traditional seder plate nibbles are inspired by the Greek symposium where the gathering would graze on appetizer-sized delights while debating and discussing into the night. It was a tradition in my father’s family to dig into snacks when we got to karpas -– a limp sprig of saltwater drenched parsley won’t do. Growing up, at this point in the seder, we circulated boiled potatoes (pri ha-adamah, fruit of the earth) but also hardboiled eggs. Last year, we stepped it up. I asked my husband’s aunt to bring an assortment of green veggies (cucumber spears, endives, celery sticks) and various dips to reference dipping a green vegetable into the saltwater. Then, the Four Children were given the food-focused treatment as well. The assignment to our cousins was to bring a snack corresponding to each child, and an explanation. Our cousins took the interpretation that the Four Children represent different phases in life so they started with simple foods that a baby can eat and evolved into more complex, seasoned foods that a thoughtful, questioning university student would nosh on. The Four Children interpreted through food can go in many directions. The Rasha (evil child) could represented by candy or even popcorn or other controversial kitniyot items.
MATZ-O was our seder take on BINGO. I made up “BINGO” cards, arranging them so that no one would win four-in-a-row before dinner. Our kids made little drawings for each item on the sheet, which got them involved in the preparations. It was a great way to keep all the kids following along. It’s amazing how motivated children are to win an eraser or pencil. I made a big deal of announcing where we were in the order of the seder to cue the kids to check their sheets. Next time, I’ll make more than two versions so that the winners are staggered and I’m not swarmed all at once by a gaggle of children giddy for that complementary eraser.
WE TOLD IT OUR WAY
While the imperative of the Passover seder is to tell the story of the Exodus to our children, traditional haggadot don’t include the actual story so many just keep drilling through the prescribed pages towards the shulchan orech (festive meal). I assigned maggid (the part of the Passover Seder during which the story of the exodus from Egypt is read and recounted from the Haggadah) to my brother and sister-in-law. They landed on the perfect way to tell the story of the Israelite slaves recruited to build for the Egyptian taskmasters: with Lego building blocks. They pre-built several vignettes for the key moments in the story and passed them around. It was a huge highpoint and by the end, we had a little display of their sculptural maggid.
PAYING IT FORWARD THROUGH PLAGUES?!
Our planning trio shared discomfort around the way the Ten Plagues have become infantilized and repackaged as a silly moment in the seder. Throw plastic bugs on the table, or Styrofoam balls as stand in for hail. Locusts, boils, cattle disease -– hooray! As parents, we weren’t comfortable glamorizing horrific aspects of the Passover story such as the Plagues. We felt our kids were old enough to reflect on and empathize with the suffering of “the other side” that came at the expense of our freedom. At that juncture in the seder, we spoke about modern day plagues (homelessness, poverty, the refugee crisis, the earthquake that had just happened in Ecuador) and the Jewish responsibility to help people in need. I handed out to each kid the same amount of money in pocket change that they were about to “win” for the Akifoman and asked them to pick which causes they wanted to give tzedakah (charity) to. I made individual tzedakah boxes so it was very tangible. The children listened attentively and thought carefully about their choices. Grown-ups were encouraged to add to the pushkes (tzedakah boxes) too. It was a successful and powerful lesson.
THE THIRD CUP GOES POP
Another lure to keep kids in the room after the thrill of the Afikoman search was to promise a third cup surprise… grape juice smoothie pops! My husband made them in advance with our kids who were proud to hand them out. These were a hit with an unanticipated a side-benefit — silence. It was a win-win, which led us into singing and a wonderful time for all those gathered from ages two to 72.
The Haggadah has always been a guidepost for the Passover seder, not a prescription. Rather than follow it exactly, use it as a jumping off point for new, playful traditions and thoughtful conversations geared at the demographics of your assembled loved ones. Having thematic snacks goes a long way too! Make the seder your own and it will definitely be a different night for all.
RECIPE FOR PARVE THIRD CUP GRAPE JUICE SMOOTHIE POPS (contains kitniyot)
1 cup of grape juice
1 package mango-flavoured silken tofu (plain works too)
1 cup frozen or fresh berries (blueberries and blackberries will enhance the grape-color)
Puree together in a blender until smooth and pour into individual popsicle moulds. Make at least a day in advance and remove a few minutes early to soften slightly, which makes it easier to pull the popsicles out of the moulds.
This story "Passover Seder Kid-Friendly" was written by Evelyn Tauben.