When it comes to Jewish holidays, family, and children, Passover is the Big Kahuna.
There’s no question that there’s something for the kids in almost every holiday: presents and gelt at Hanukkah, costumes at Purim, running around the yard at dinnertime during Sukkot. But when it’s time for the seder, the pressure is on. This is the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday, even among secular families. This is when we tell the Passover story, that iconic tale of oppression and enslavement, powerful leaders, bravery in the face of the unthinkable, and God’s redemption of the Israelites. Regardless of the details, this is the narrative of our people, and it’s one that we are compelled to pass along to our children.
We get this one shot every year. Yes, Passover lasts eight days (or seven for some of us), but let’s be honest: by the second seder (if you hold one) everyone is exhausted and not sure if they can stomach another meal of left-over brisket and day old gefilte fish. The rest of the week is spent trying to figure out how many different ways one can eat matzah or feeling guilty for eating chametz, and worst of all, trying to make sure your shockingly picky preschooler eats something besides cheese sticks and strawberries all week.
Yep, the seder is the moment for Jewish parents to shine, to show off our kids chanting the four questions, to pass along what is arguably the most important story in Jewish history, along with all of the rituals… and let’s not forget it’s supposed to be fun for the kids. (Hence, the ridiculous plague finger-puppets and face masks that I keep finding in every corner of my house.)
I don’t know about your children, but an evening meal with a bunch of weird foods and prescribed rituals that involve a lot of waiting and Hebrew prayers they don’t understand is pretty much a recipe for disaster with my littles. They love sipping the wine (especially my 2-year-old, disturbingly enough) and the hallel (songs of praise) at the end (if they’re still awake!), but everything in between is pretty much hit or miss. Nonetheless, I become obsessed with keeping the kids at the table. We do the best we can; my in-laws start the seder early, and I come armed with kid’s haggadahs, board books about Baby Moses (a particular favorite with my baby-doll-obsessed girls), plush plagues, bouncy frogs, and everything else I can think of. If one of them happens to grab the girls’ interest for a few minutes, I might actually get to focus on the blessings and readings, or even choke down a few bites of dinner. Otherwise, my husband and I spend the meal trying to coax the girls into trying the haroset or matzah ball soup, changing diapers (WHY? WHY DO THEY ALWAYS POOP DURING DINNER?), managing tantrums, and basically trying to keep them relatively quiet so the seder can progress. All of this in the name of freedom?
This year will be my fourth Passover as a mother, and I’m ready to try something different. Yes, we are reading books about Pharaoh and the plagues and I’m carbo loading as if I were training for a marathon instead of getting ready to clean my kitchen. I’ll probably read the top ten lists of how to keep your kids involved at the seder and see if any of the ideas might work with my family, and bring a bag full of Passover-related toys to the meal.
And then I’m letting go. I’m not going to worry about whether or not they are at the table for every step of the seder. If they end up on the living room floor playing with their baby dolls (at best) or whining excessively (at almost worst), well, I’m going to be okay with that. The reality of it (as any parent of young children knows) is that the more you make plans for how something is going to go, the less likely it is to work out that way. So, I’m not going to stress about them learning the blessings or Passover songs–that will come. We have years to get there, and as the kids get older, it will get easier.
But it’s hard now. It’s hard to let go. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a secular family, and I didn’t start my own Jewish education until after college. Maybe it’s because everyone else’s seders with little kids seem to go so much more smoothly than mine (Hello, Fakebook?). Maybe it’s because Judaism is so meaningful to me, or maybe it’s because now that I am a parent time seems to be passing so quickly, and each ritual, each family gathering seems so fraught with opportunity that I feel a need to cram as much of our history and ritual as I can. But that’s not how children learn, and that’s not what I want them to remember about our seders. Hopefully this year we will all be truly free to enjoy our freedom.
(Who am I kidding? It’s going to be a mess. But at least the matzah balls will be delicious.)