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Kids These Days

After a seder circus, wondering if too much emphasis on children is ruining ritual

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Josie and Maxine with their cousin Shirley, at Passover. (Jonathan Steuer)

I often work myself into a lather trying to make Jewish ritual practice accessible to kids.

Take the seder.  This year I joined the Facebook group “Great Seder Ideas for Kids!” and adopted several suggestions from it. To illustrate the plague of blood, I poured water into all the Hebrews’ glasses, then pretended to be Pharaoh and poured water into my own; I’d secretly placed a few sprinkles of red gelatin dessert powder therein, and the glass filled up with “blood.” The kids were gobsmacked as I screamed in terror. I also provided a mix of personalized seder poems and songs, combining the classic stories of our people with in-jokes and references to family members.

Our seder featured an interpretive dance interlude, inspired by Moses’s sister Miriam, in which the kids boogied under an ocean-blue sheet waved by adults. As we sang Dayenu, we beat each other with scallions, a Sephardic tradition that represents the Egyptian overseers beating the slaves. Maxine told what has become an annual joke, lifted from the delightful middle-grade novel Penina Levine Is a Hard-Boiled Egg, about a kid experiencing Passover and Easter in a multicultural world. Said joke: Can Elijah get through a screen door? He can, but it’s a strain! (Get it? A strain!)

All of this raises the question: Is this a seder or a circus?

I’m not self-congratulatory about my parenting. I am all about the second-guessing, self-flagellation, self-questioning, and guilt. And I’m worried that my attempts to tailor the seder to the kids have gone too far. Our sages have always wanted the seder to prompt questions and engagement, but when parents like me create a multimedia extravaganza, what do we lose in the process? Are we, as they say, diluting the brand?

Stephen Colbert touched on this subject last week, devoting a segment on his show to the commercialization of Passover. As Colbert put it, “Tradition-loving Pesach-poopers complain that this holiday doesn’t need leavening.” (Get it? Leavening!) He quoted Miami resident Dorothy Raphaely, who told the Wall Street Journal that “Tedium is part of the tradition.”

It’s true. As a kid, I went to Jewish day school, where texts, prayers, and rituals were taught the old-school way: by rote, in a fevered spew of Hebrew and Aramaic. There was little attempt to make things relevant. We kids understood that there were expectations: We would memorize; we would be silent; we would not confuse Judaism with a Pink Floyd sound-and-light show.

My education may not have emphasized modern-day values like multiculturalism. But when I was my kids’ age, I knew a lot more Hebrew and a lot more textual content then they do now. Sometimes I feel the tradeoff has been worth it; sometimes I don’t. I don’t mean to sound too “hey kids, get off my lawn,” but it’s not accidental that kids today have an air of entitlement earlier generations lacked. Isn’t tailoring the seder to children part of a larger cultural trend of catering to our kids’ every whim? My generation takes its kids to fancy restaurants and smiles tolerantly as they hurl dinner rolls. When our kids get in trouble, we blame the other kid, the teacher, the school, the playground, the community. Are we really doing our kids—or our society, in the long term—any favors by convincing them the sun rises and sets upon their golden, flawless heads?

And when we turn a seder into the ritual equivalent of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, aren’t we giving up a meaningful, mysterious adult night? My child-free friend Lori and my editor Liel host sedarim that involve discussions and debates about free will and international politics. Meanwhile, my seder involves wearing a mask that looks like boils.

I spent a lot of my childhood hiding novels inside siddurim. I was bored a lot. But I also understood that there was a huge, important grown-up world I would one day be privy to. Is it possible that some presents are worth waiting for? Life isn’t one big afikomen gift.

I think hardest about this question during the High Holidays. It’s been eight years since I had a truly spiritual experience. These days I attend children’s services and devote my attention to hushing, shushing, and quivering with worry that my kids are not sufficiently engaged, or, alternately, that I should have given them the kind of education where they expect not to be sufficiently engaged. I realize that Orthodox Judaism gives moms like me an out, excusing women from all time-bound mitzvot. But whatever your level of observance, not being obligated to do something doesn’t mean you don’t necessarily want to do something. I’m always torn. I want my kids to love Judaism, to feel drawn in to our narratives, to make connections between ancient stories and the world they live in today. But I also mourn the personal engagement with text I once had. Does becoming a parent—particularly a mother—inherently mean buckling your own intellectual needs into a booster seat in the way-back?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions. And I suppose the tensions can be productive. “It is a part of the human condition to live in polarities,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel in God in Search of Man. “A challenge is not the same as a clash, and divergence does not mean a conflict.” But I’m not F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I don’t pass his test of a first-rate mind: the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. Instead, I whiplash back and forth between worrying about engagement and worrying about traditionalism; I fret about the state of future generations (the ones eating candied fruit slices at my own table) and the state of my own. But that too is part of the history of our people, after all.

I suppose I should take comfort in a quote from that Wall Street Journal article that Stephen Colbert did not share on TV: “We have to make sure that rituals don’t become dead symbols,” says Rabbi Kenneth Brander, a dean at Yeshiva University.

The dean’s right—no meaningful religion can be frozen in amber. But how to balance relevance and respect, the needs of the many and the needs of the few? The tension can get overwhelming. It’s brutal feeling that we can’t let ourselves, or our kids, off the hook. To some degree, I suppose I’ll just have to be patient; as my kids become more independent, I’ll regain more of my own spiritual focus.

Or so I hope. Perpetually angsting over how to be the best Jewish parent you can be isn’t really productive. Parenting is easier when we just take it holiday by holiday, plague by plague.

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JTabes says:

It is true that the Haggadah singles out for praise the lofty, intellectualized seder of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya and his rabbinic pals. But one cannot overlook the Mishnaic requirement to ‘pass pieces of bread’ in an effort to keep the children involved and invested–that is, to entertain. The seder is for the children, designed to teach each according to her ability; so, if your children are at an age where games and song and dance inspire wonder, who are you to argue? Once the kids are tucked in, if you’re not too tuckered out, then spend the rest of the night discussing yetziat mitzrayim.

Great article, Marjorie! As an overworked, exhausted Jewish education professional for most of my life, I have ended up leaning more toward creative constructivism when it comes to my students and “bland” tradition when it comes to my own kids (no energy left to be as creative at home, I guess). I am sure you know that you are far from the only parent out there struggling with the balancing act you describe so well here. I can say, though, that once your kids get a bit older than your daughters (my older two are post-bar mitzvah now), things do change and there is a bit more time to go back to your BC (before children) self.

I was just thinking about this topic over Pesach when noticing the frogs and other toys to “enhance” the seder for sale in the Pesach stores in my area.

One of the seders that I attended had children ranging from 8 months to 14 years. The family did not have all the toys, games and tricks that I read about on the web but the kids were all fully engaged appropriate (at least in my opinion) to their age. They were given ample time for relating what they had learnt at school and especially encouraged to recite the Ma Nishtana. Each child was given a small present after they had said it which they were excited about. It didn’t appear to me that a mask or jelly crystals in the water would have added much to their enjoyment or engagement in the proceedings.

At our Seders (how to say it in proper plural??) there were 2 adults who were much more immature and whiney than any of the 4 children present. They were my sister-in-law and her husband. My husband gave them a talking-to about Seder decorum.

I hate plague toys and bags. Other people’s suffering is just not funny. Nor is it appetizing.

Sarah V. says:

One of these comments points to the other side of this dilemma, that this interesting and very relevant article doesn’t address directly. It is challenging (and not impossible) for adults to engage in a seder. Many want to. And it’s not actually easy running a seder that does this for adults. Frankly…it’s probably easier to do this for kids. So the unspoken question is, are the adults who are making and attending the seder willing to take the risk of engaging in its themes and rituals themselves? So often, adults live through their children and project their feelings onto them, since that’s so much easier than facing their own spiritual challenges.

Hello Marjorie, Great article. I hosted my first Passover Seder this year and I added a lot of fun things, and I didn’t just do it for the kids. I enjoyed it, as well. And so did my guests (or at least that’s what they told me anyway). Yes – as homeshuling says, “Other people’s suffering is just not funny,” but Passover is a happy holiday celebrating the Jews’ freedom from bondage in Egypt after 10 generations, so I mixed the fun with the serious and the educational.

I borrowed things that I learned from other people’s Seders, and gave everybody small cups of red jello for the plague of blood. I’m not sure if I’ll do this again, but I gave everyone a small cup filled with mini-marshmallows that we threw for the hail. I’m still finding those sticky little marshmallows between seat cushions and other places I know I cleaned already. We sang familiar songs, like the frog song, that my kids learned in Hebrew school. We became serious and told the Passover story. It amazes me that the story of Passover has been told for over 3,000 and whatever my style, I’m happy to be carrying on the tradition, as I hope my children will continue to do.

One new thing that I added, was introducing the role and importance of Miriam in the Passover story. I had just written an extensive article about Miriam at my website,, and I think everyone was interested in learning about this new heroine(well, not new, but new to our Seder). I had a Miriam’s Cup at the table, and after I explained her role, I played Miriam’s Song by Debbie Friedman (you can hear it at I paid $1 and my son downloaded it onto his IPod. (He will deny liking the song, but I’ve heard him singing along to it.)

I also got a great collection of Passover songs written to popular tunes such as, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” (There’s no Seder Like Our Seder) “Take me Out to the Ball Game,”(Take us Out of Egypt) “Clementine,” “Gilligan’s Island,” (Moses’ Island) “Just a Spoon Full of Sugar,” (“Just a Tad of Charoset”). We had a great time singing these songs, which also told the story of Passover.

I think my family is as religious as I want us to be, so I’m at peace with that. I hope that between the holidays we celebrate, Hebrew school, and their upcoming Bar Mitzvah’s, my 3 boys will embrace their Jewish identity and pass it on.

Bianca says:

Most years I host a seder. I am far from observant & did not grow up with traditional sederim.

But I see the seder as a great interfaith opportunity. My guests are always a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish. Family & friends. And I try really hard to engage them all.

(BTW, all adults.)

It’s not easy! But I flatter myself that each year everyone remains awake & behaves decorously…

Maybe I should take up some of the ideas for children – after all, adults should also be allowed to let loose & enjoy a little jellied blood once in a while!

Mike Waxman says:

We talk a lot about how to actually run a seder, whether a kid-centered
one is better than other styles. But isn’t the real question whether our
kids learn anything from our seders?
It should be easy enough to answer this question. How many of us feel a symbolic
understanding of and emotional attachment to the seder? What kind or style of
seder did our parents have when we were kids?

You raise several important points here, Marjorie. I do think that many have taken the kid-centered approach a bit too far. When I was young, we children were expected to sit at the table and participate to whatever extent we were able. Being old enough to ask (or chant) the fir qashes was a celebrated milestone. No other attempts were made to engage us…and that was OK. It was exciting to be a part of something so grown-up. And something so obviously meaningful to the adults.

Though I do not run our family’s seder, I have brought a few things to keep the kids quiet. The finger puppets. Passover word games. Their favourite Passover picture books. The weeks leading up to Pesach, we are talking about our memories of bondage and singing the traditional songs. So that around the Seder table, they are comfortable enough to participate.

The bigger issue, of course, is how to create meaningful spiritual experiences for the parents of the kids we are trying to keep engaged.

Great article.

The seder is not “for the children”, as an early commenter said; it is for all who would learn. We need to find ways to engage all; many seders attempt to engage the kids while alienating the adults, and even if they’re successful in engaging the kids (which many aren’t), that’s too high a price to pay.

This isn’t something that can just be fixed on the night of the seder, though; it needs to begin well in advance, with parents setting their kids’ expectations and clearly communicating their own expectations of their kids. It means pushing back against the entitlement meme that’s become so common these days (and that you wrote about). I’m sorry current trends make it so hard for parents who want to raise engaged, civilized children to do so, but please don’t give up. We need you.

ursula says:

please dear people can u help, I read all of the above and many other things, but apart of our faith I cant give a site(historically) to my son in law who wants to know if this is true. do you have any other, may be egyptian historybooks or the like-not passages from the thora or the bible- he knows them- other sources that could help him to ,see, that these plagues really happend and that the passover is not just a fantastik story. Prais be to our God who set us free in Jesus Christ. Yes I am a Christian and I do honour all that God has done before the crucifixion and the risen Christ.Without Christ I wouldnt have the privilidge to be saved for eternity, because I wasnt born jewish.Thank you for your help and be blessed in this wonderful Lord!

I’m impressed. At most when I was growing up, at our sortof seder we took turns reading. When our kids were little, I think we failed at making it educational. We must do better for the grandchildren. Next year is “our turn” and we ought to find ways to make a better seder.

Thanks, Marjorie, for writing about this issue that’s been bothering me for years, and thanks to Monica for being brave enough to say that no, Seder is not “for the kinder”. Whoever decided that? Call me a grinch or a scrooge, but the Haggadah is 1) long enough as it is w/o adding in Acting Out the Plagues and that uber-dorky 4 Sons-to-the-tune-of-Clementine ditty; and 2) Is content-rich enough as it is, and managed to engage us for 3,000 years.

I’m totally behind dialling back on the “engage the kiddies” mania. What’s wrong with just holding a nice, go-around-the-table-and-take-turns-reading Seder with all the built-in rituals, good food, singing, and family time? PS I reject any modern-day additions, especially if they’re in English; I don’t mind the orange on the Seder plate, the Miriam’s cup, the empty Gilad Shalit’s chair, etc.

Hadassa says:

Pesah is the only holiday that is specifically geared for the children. Stating otherwise is ignoring what the Sages have written. Before no other holiday are we advised by the Sages to have the children nap the previous afternoon so that they will be awake for the entire meal. For no other holiday is there the concept of “vehegadita lebincha” (and you will tell it to your son). For no other holiday do the Sages instruct us to give the children nuts in order to keep their attention. Of course today other snacks are more effective than nuts. The seder plate is removed from and returned to the table in order to pique the children’s interest and encourage them to ask questions in addition to the Four Questions. There’s a centuries old tradition among the Sephardim of acting out leaving Egypt with matza dough carried in sacks. Playacting does not have to turn the seder into a circus.
Yam Erez, the Haggada is actually not long at all. Try reading it straight through. It’s the commentary and other additions that lengthen it and they should be tailored to the participants. Many people enjoy staying up until four in the morning. Personally, we like to have the afikoman at halachic midnight and finish the seder soon after.

I’ve said that least 3028815 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean


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Kids These Days

After a seder circus, wondering if too much emphasis on children is ruining ritual

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