PASSOVER: The 11th Plague: Boredom
Not all seders are sit-down affairs.
When “Dayenu” begins at the home of Simone Shenassa of West Orange, N.J., everyone takes bunches of scallions and hits everyone else, to imitate the whipping of the slaves.
“It’s very much a free-for-all,” Shenassa said of this Persian custom. People get up from their chairs to whip others across the room, and children are even allowed — just this one time — to strike a grandparent. To end the ruckus, guests bite the scallion in the middle, signaling that the whip has been broken, and they need to clean up the mess and resume singing.
At the extended family seder of Noah Kussin-Bordo, 11, “Dayenu” means getting up from the table, grabbing a pair of maracas and taking his place as head of the Dayenu Band. Noah and his younger cousins march around the house with their tambourines, kazoos and hand-held drums, singing full-blast while the grown-ups remain seated, watching the commotion.
“We know that when ‘Dayenu’ comes, we actually have something to do,” said Noah, 11, who lives with his family in Tarzana.
Noah and his cousins, typical kids who normally would be bored by the second glass of grape juice, are among those finding new ways to take part in the family rituals.
No longer forced to remain silent and solemn while an elder speed-reads in Hebrew through the entire haggadah — called upon only to read the Four Questions and steal the afikomen — kids today are engaging in family-created rituals with wind-up toy frogs, edible centerpieces, Hillel sandwiches made from mounds of pyramid-shaped charoset and 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” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003).
Family educator Alice Langholt has been using her own kid-friendly, interactive haggadah at her seders in Cleveland, Ohio, 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 use construction paper and crayons 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/African American 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.”
Balancing tradition with innovation is not a modern phenomenon that can be traced back only as far as the matzah of Hope, introduced in the 1970s to draw attention to the plight of the Soviet Jews. New York author and Jewish researcher David Arnow says that creating personalized seders “really reaches back to what the original designers of the seder had in mind.”
Indeed, what may be the earliest known 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” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004). “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 the youngest children who need to be drawn in.
Several years ago, 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,’ the kids were able to take it seriously,” Fasman added.
Some people extend this analogy even further.
“Pretend that the four children — wise, wicked, simple and the child who does not know who to ask — are models for the people at your seder, and plan activities for all four levels,” advised Rivka Ben Daniel, director of Hebrew and Judaic studies at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School West in Agoura. Ben Daniel teaches a workshop for parents in which she gives out 100 seder ideas.
At her own family seder, a six-hour extravaganza which she conducts, she employs a mixture of seriousness, such as philosophical discussion and prepared Torah commentaries, and lightness. In the latter vein, one of her favorite activities involves having the guests grant Pesach “Ruach” (spirit) Awards to each other. Some of the 10 categories include Most Creative Midrash, Most Active Participant and Best Dessert.
Shiela Steinman Wallace of Louisville, Ky., 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 when during 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.
And in Los Angeles, Sara Aftergood has been captivating her guests with innovative seders for the past 20 years, originally motivated by a desire to reinforce her children’s Jewish day school studies.
A recent invention 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, each pair concealing 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 none of this should replace the actual reading of the haggadah, Wolfson and other educators insist. 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.”