This post was written by my cousin, Rabbi Elyssa Cherney, who runs the website Tackling Torah. Fun fact! While she was studying to become a rabbi, she conducted the services for both Mazzy and Harlow’s baby naming.
As both a rabbi and a mother to a three-year-old, I am intentional about teaching our Jewish traditions and the meanings behind them to my daughter as she grows up in our home. As she gets older and becomes more observant of the world around her, new questions arise. The spring holidays, in particular, present some interesting challenges. Passover has a lot of positive values to teach, like to appreciate all that we have, but it also gets a bad rap for all the food restrictions and house cleaning it involves!
For parents interested in getting their little ones interested in the Passover holiday, below is a list of age-appropriate ideas. This list of rituals is in the spirit of Passover practices, but does not represent traditional Passover observances. All Jews observe Passover differently. These are just some ways to incorporate the idea of freedom and rituals into your lives, Jewish or not.
1) Tell a story of freedom.
The story of Exodus has a specific order to remind Jews of what it felt like to be oppressed in Egypt. The story obligates Jews towards empathy and kindness. It’s like: remember that time you were struggling and someone rescued you? Kids understand oppression! They live in a world where they have to beg, cry and scream to get what they want and feel like they’re never being heard. Talk about people who may not be free in various scenarios and what we can do to help others. As the story reminds the Jewish people, “we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Therefore, we help the strangers in our own midst to search for freedom!
2) Act out the story or tell it with props!
The Haggadah– is like a fairytale telling of the story. The Magid (the storyteller, or leader) calls on people to share in the telling of the tale. How we tell the story can be extremely fun! Even in ancient times, the Jewish people came up with gimmicks to make sure everyone listened. One is the four children: the wise, wicked, simple, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask. The story is to be told according to the way in which each child/or adult will understand. There are chances to sing, ask questions and act out parts of the story! Suggestion: buy props ahead of time! Go to a children’s toy store and buy: red food coloring (blood); bouncing frogs; small cattle/wildlife and bug figures (beasts/locust); cotton balls (hail); sunglasses (darkness/death of the first born). If you’re really crafty, you can make puppets or masks beforehand with your kids for each plague. (You can make life easier and buy them too.) Ask kids: are there things that are troubling (“plaguing”) our world/earth today?
3) Have a supermarket scavenger hunt.
Preparing for Passover can be its own challenge. But depending on the age of your children, you may be able to involve them in some of the set up. There are many unique things one must acquire for the symbols on a seder plate itself. Come up with your list and take the kids to the grocery store. Divide the list by each kid and their age, and then have them be responsible for finding various items: a bitter herb, often horseradish (maror) and bitter vegetable (chazeret) to symbolize the bitterness of slavery; a leafy green, often parsley (karpas), and a roasted egg (baytzah) represents the rebirth of spring and the rebirth of the Jewish people towards freedom; a shank bone of a lamb (z’roah) symbolizing the sacrifice of a lamb made at the ancient Temple in Jerusalem; apples and nut mixture (charoset) symbolizing the mortar that Jewish slaves used. It’s also fun to outline the food restrictions and see if your kids can come up with items they love that are within the guidelines. Or perhaps establish a favorite holiday treat that is only available on Passover. As a child, I looked forward to certain cookies and muffins that I knew we only had on Passover.
4) Introduce new symbols into your family tradition.
In some liberal Jewish households, people add other symbolic foods to their seder plates to call attention to issues of oppression, liberation, justice, and inclusivity. Some of these items can include: an orange, for Jewish feminism and LGBTQ inclusion; an olive, as a symbol for peace between Israelis and Palestinians; an artichoke for an interfaith-friendly seder plate. “Like the artichoke, which has thistles protecting its heart, the Jewish people have been thorny about this question of interfaith marriage.” Rabbi Rayzel; and fair Trade Chocolate, to remind us that forced labor is still with us today.
5) Lead a search party for crumbs.
In addition to the Seder plate items, the ancient Jewish text of the Mishnah teaches the Jewish people that we are to rid ourselves of any chametz (bread of affliction) prior to the holiday starting. We then are instructed to make sure we are completely rid of any and all bread items by searching for crumbs in the dark by candlelight or flashlight. This could be a really fun game to have kids do too! Take out those iPhone flashlights and check under your fridge, cabinets and sofas for crumbs from the previous year. Do your kids like a competition? Keep score for who finds the most!
6) Make that Matzah as exciting as possible.
Matzah reminds the Jewish people that they left Egypt in a hurry without time for bread to rise. On it’s own, it’s a dense cracker that is as plain as plain can be. However, one of its best qualities is that it can be dressed up in a variety of ways. Kids love a toppings buffet, especially if it includes all their favorite sweets. So, gather a few friends together and host a Matzah topping PARTY! Put out all the fixings you can think of— Nutella, PB&J, sliced fruit (dried and fresh), sprinkles, chocolate chips, marshmallow spread, crushed nuts, almond slivers, gummies, etc. You can also do a savory bar with pizza toppings!
7) Build up excitement around the afikomen.
Alikomen is actually the word for ‘that which comes after (the meal)’ or dessert in Greek. The modern day custom has been to play hide and seek with the middle piece of matzah from the Seder table. The children at the seder are responsible for finding this hidden treasure and then bartering for a prize after they have found it, which is often cold hard cash. Very motivating! The best part is that the search comes at the end of the meal so there is something for the children to look forward to, in addition to dessert! If you have a broad range of kids at your Seder, sometimes its best to have two afikomens, one hid easily for the little kids and one hid in a much tougher spot for the big kids.
8) Turn off your phones and turn on your imagination.
Remember when families had game nights that didn’t involve technology? Passover is a great time to engage in multigenerational stories and imagination. Continue to open the door for Elijah (a prophet that is thought to usher in a future peaceful world). Ask your kids: what does a peaceful world look like for them? What does it look like for you? How do we get there? If you have time to spend together because of holiday days off, go for a walk, or to the park together. Set your phones aside and make space to enjoy one another’s company by engaging in imaginative play with your children.
9) Invite a surprise guest.
It is considered a mitzvah (good deed) to invite guests to your Passover seder, since the telling of the freedom story is out of Jewish obligation. So, share your old and new traditions with your neighbors, family friends, coworkers, and more! Maybe even let your kids select a neighbor or friend to invite that might not have experienced the seder before. It’s an excellent way for children to teach someone about their traditions and feel proud of their Jewish heritage.
Passover, much like Shabbat is about doing the prep work beforehand, so that once the evening of your Seder meal arrives, you can simply sit back and enjoy. The Jewish people are actually told within the story to recline. You can even have your kids bring a pillow to the table to make their chair extra comfy. Then instruct them to listen to the tale and be present for this ancient annual tradition. This goes for parents too. Remember why you are telling the story and try to deepen the discussion around the holiday every year as your kids get older. But most of all, don’t try and be two places at once. Just focus on enjoying the company of those around you and the deliciousness of your prepared feast.
I hope you and your family have a joyous and meaningful Passover this season! May you feel empowered to continue old traditions and start new traditions as your family evolves.
Rabbi Elyssa Cherney is a spiritual leader at Temple Judea, and runs the website Tackling Torah. She specializes in helping individuals and families create unique life cycle rituals, particularly in marking moments of transitions such as starting a new school, moving, reaching a new phase of joy or loss. Her site seeks to find holiness in our everyday lives. If you want to create a unique ritual for your family, you can contact Elyssa at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, really, for any questions about religion and kids!