ENCINO, Calif. (Mar. 1)
At this year’s Passover seder, during the singing of “Dayenu,” Noah Kussin-Bordo will rise, gather up a pair of maracas and take his place as head of the Dayenu Band. His younger cousins, with their tambourines, kazoos and hand-held drums, will follow as he leads them around the dining and living rooms, marching and singing, while the grownups remain seated. “We know that when Dayenu comes, we actually have something to do,” said Noah, 11.
Children like Noah and his cousins, who normally get bored during sedarim, are taking increasingly participatory roles at seders as families like the Kussins, who live in Northridge, Calif., devise activities for the kids.
These activities help entice children who may be bored if they are only called upon to read the Four Questions and steal the Afikomen. Now they are playing with wind-up toy frogs, staving off hunger pains with edible centerpieces, making Hillel sandwiches from mounds of pyramid-shaped charoset and competing in Wheel of Matzah games.
“The real purpose of the seder is to re-enact the story, but people need permission to do other than the model we grew up with,” said Ron Wolfson, education professor at Los Angeles’ University of Judaism and author of “Passover: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration.”
Family educator Alice Langholt has been using her own Haggadah at her seders in Cleveland since 1999. For the plagues, she sets each place with items such as Band-Aids and Neosporin to represent boils, sunglasses for darkness and toy cows for pestilence. At the appropriate time, guests are given construction paper and crayons and instructed to draw a representation of their plague, which they then explain to the group.
For the 10th plague, the slaying of the first-born, Langholt asks all the first-born guests to rise and recite a passage from “A Common Road to Freedom,” an alternative, Jewish/black Haggadah, which begins, “Each drop of wine we pour out is hope and prayer that people will cast out the plagues that threaten everyone everywhere they are found.”
It may seem that balancing tradition with innovation is a modern phenomenon, perhaps traced back as far as the Matzah of Hope introduced in the 1970s to draw attention to the plight of the Soviet Jews. But New York author and Jewish researcher David Arnow says that “this really reaches back to what the original designers of the seder had in mind.”
What can be construed as the earliest Haggadah, dating back 1,800 years to the Mishnah, contains some fixed rituals such as drinking four glasses of wine, reclining and eating bitter herbs and matzah. But it also includes some ad-libbing. The child, while not required to recite the Four Questions, was expected to pose other questions throughout the seder. The father would then answer those questions with a Midrash or explanation that was adjusted to the child’s level of understanding.
“Over the generations, the spontaneous parts became prescribed,” said Arnow, author of “Creating Lively Passover Seders.” “Where we are now is trying to recreate the balance with seders that are meaningful and engaging and yet tied to the roots.”
And it’s not only some younger children who need to be drawn in. To grab the attention of teenagers, Rabbi Mark Fasman of Shaare Zedek Synagogue in St. Louis, bought a deep fryer and held a “burgers and fries” second seder for his then-adolescent son and cousins.
“Teenagers are the classic second child,” said Fasman, referring to the wicked child — and burgers and fries, along with a driver’s license, are their ultimate symbols of freedom. “As soon as I said, ‘This is your seder,’ he was able to take it seriously,” Fasman added.
In Louisville, Ky., Shiela Steinman Wallace enables everyone — those Passover-savvy and not, those Jewish and not — to participate in her seder by asking them to bring something to share and then to determine at what point in the seder to interrupt and talk about it.
One year her father brought the shirt her grandfather wore on his 1912 voyage from Ukraine to the United States. Another year her son shared the rod used to repair his broken leg. Wallace makes bringing an item “a condition of acceptance.” Other stipulations, which she spells out in a pre-Passover e-mail, include coming hungry, not bringing food items and understanding that all questions are welcome.
Simone Shenassa of West Orange, N.J., finds it easy to engage all the members of his family with the traditional Persian custom, when “Dayenu” commences, of hitting each other with bunches of scallions to imitate the whipping of the slaves.
“It’s very much a free-for-all,” Shenassa said, explaining that people get up from their chairs to whip others across the room and that it’s the one time children are permitted to strike a grandparent. To end the ruckus, the guests bite the scallion in the middle, signaling that the whip has been broken and that they need to clean up the mess and resume singing.
And in Los Angeles, Sara Aftergood has been captivating her guests with innovative seders for the past 20 years, originally motivated by wanting to reinforce her children’s Jewish day school studies.
One of her recent institutions occurs at the seder’s conclusion, around midnight. Bringing out a silver platter, she distributes to her 40 costume-clad guests seder fortune cookies, consisting of two long, broken pieces of matzah containing a phrase and tied with ribbon. Guests then take turns reading their fortunes. They range from quotes from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel about the importance of learning Torah, to “Isn’t the hostess pretty?” and “I simply insist on staying to clean up this mess.”
But Wolfson and other educators emphasize that none of these activities are designed to replace the actual reading of the Haggadah. Rather, they recommend that families use them to punctuate the reading.
“Passover is the most observed holiday of the whole year,” Wolfson said. “It’s thrilling to think that this ritual has been transformed into something accessible and celebratory that gets the message across that once we were slaves and now we are free.”