This week in my house, we’ve been eating down our pile of hamentashen, putting away costumes, and imposing our yearly ban on buying non-essential food items. Now that Purim is over, it’s becoming hard to ignore that Passover is coming in just a few weeks. Whether you’re looking forward to Passover – the seders, spending time with family and friends – or dreading all the work you’ll need to do to prepare – cleaning, cooking, planning a seder – it’s time to start thinking about how your family will celebrate this year.
If you’re a young family, maybe you haven’t quite established your family tradition yet. Maybe one parent is attached to a longstanding tradition, while the other never really had a seder until recently. Or maybe you have two family traditions that you’ve been participating in or trying to integrate. If you’re pregnant or have a new baby, the question of a family tradition may feel more pressing than it has before. Rather than asking, “what will we do this year?” you may be wondering, “What kind of Passover will our baby grow up with?” If your seders haven’t had little kids recently, you may be trying to figure out how to adjust the plan so that children will enjoy it, and parents don’t end up completely worn out.
I remember the first year my husband and I hosted the seder. My family seders have always been of the long and enthusiastic variety, with lots of singing, lots of people, lots of reading, lots of food and a good amount of silliness. Years before having the chance to lead the seder, I had grown tired of sticking to the text in the haggadah, and started bringing extra things to read, to get people thinking and hopefully to start some discussions. Now that I was in charge, I had the chance to choose a new haggadah, carefully plan all the insertions, and add some new songs. We were also all very excited because this was the year we would finally have kids at the seder. My cousin was bringing her twin boys, under a year old at the time, and though they wouldn’t ask the four questions yet, everyone was thrilled to start passing the family traditions on to the next generation. I remember the boys sitting at the seder table, watching the unusual evening unfold. And I remember their parents taking them away from the table however many times to deal with all the little things babies need. In the end, they were in an unfamiliar place, awake when they should have been asleep, trying to sleep in a house where twenty-some adults were singing at the top of their lungs and banging on the table. We hadn’t really planned for what the kids would need, and I wished we had. I didn’t know if we should stop the seder for diaper changes or just keep going. Everyone loved having them there, but I could tell it was stressful for the parents and the kids were overtired and overwhelmed.
Over the years, as the kids have grown, and more have been born, we’ve adjusted our seders to account for the group we have. This year the group includes seven boys under seven! We try to make it fun and meaningful for everyone. The seder is still long. We still tell the story of Passover in most of the detail of the traditional haggadah, and sing everything we know how. But we start earlier and end earlier. We stop to let the kids show what they know and to tell the story in ways that hold the toddlers’ interest. Many of the adults appreciate that we curb our traditionalist leanings and, one night, retell the story creatively through activities, dramatics, and personal story. We feed everyone a snack before the seder starts, expand the carpas, the green vegetable, from parsley to a full crudite platter including boiled potatoes, and feed the kids a bit early if they’re getting ready to crash. The kids don’t all make it through the whole seder, but some are old enough to get excited about trying to stay up until Elijah comes to visit, and one or two might stay up the whole time.
One old standby for keeping the kids engaged is music. Once they’re a few years old, we ask them to share the songs they know from preschool, Hebrew school or home. And we sing the seder songs with them in advance so they’ll be familiar when Passover comes. We changed modes in our house this week, from Purim to Passover, and the easiest way to tell is that the music has changed from the Purim hit parade to the Seder Songs CD. My husband, Cantor Ken Richmond, and I recorded the entire seder in song a few years back, with multiple melodies for many of the texts, to teach his congregants melodies that might be new to them. Since we’ve had kids, every year after Purim, we start playing the CD. We play it in the car, we’ve played it at bedtime, and sometimes we even play it on repeat all night long in the kids’ rooms. And we circulate it to the rest of the family so that the other kids, and the newest adults to our seder, can come ready to sing along. Before they can sing, the babies recognize the music, smile and clap.
So if you’re just figuring out how your family will bring kids into the seder, here are my thoughts and suggestions. If you’ll be a guest at someone else’s seder, ask in advance for a rough idea of what the plan is so you can anticipate any moments that might be difficult for a baby. Ask if you can bring an activity, story, or other addition to the seder that will engage your child. Give yourself a break and don’t worry about needing to get up and move around to take care of your baby’s needs. Even if your baby hasn’t been born yet, if you’re thinking about shaping the seder that your kids will grow up with, ask your host to let you add a reading, or a tradition that brings your personal approach or connection to the holiday into the room.
If you’re hosting the seder, maybe for the first time, the first step is to find a haggadah that works for your group. You might start with JewishBoston.com’s new customizable The Wandering is Over Haggadah. It’s a great place to start for a meaningful but manageable taste of all the key elements of the seder with lots of English, and Hebrew in key places, that will keep the adults at your seder awake and engaged. A big part of the Passover seder is telling the story to the children, but a seder is for the adults too. If your seder is still all adults, or if your baby is very young, this is a great opportunity to establish what the seder is about for you. As your family grows, adjust to make it work for the kids, but don’t forget to keep it meaningful on an adult level as well.
Then think about adding elements from other places: the traditions you grew up with, traditions learned from your growning extended family, successful additions you heard about from friends with kids, or other haggadahs and resource books. One of my favorites, with suggestions for different ages and interests is The Family Participation Haggadah: A DIFFERENT NIGHT. The classic edition had lots to choose from as a resource guide, and the compact edition could be a good choice as a haggadah to put at each individual seat.
Finally, don’t forget the music. Teach your family, and your guests if you can, the tunes you grew up with, or the ones you’ve decided to bring in. Maybe you’ll add some music for parts you didn’t know you could sing before. You can find seder song parodies online to entertain your guests. I’ve posted my family’s Passover seder tunes on the Jewish Birth Network website. You can listen at your computer for an online sing along, download the whole set of tunes as three zip files, or a zip file of the essentials for families with young children, or choose which ones you want to download individually to create your own seder set list to share with your guests, and play for your family.
Last year, Zalmen, then two and a half, seemed to be fast asleep on Ken’s lap. The seder was coming to a close, and everyone started singing Adir Hu, one of his favorites. As we paused to see who would lead the call and response part, a high pitched but strong little voice sang out, “El b’nei!” Everyone turned to look at Zalmen, his eyes still mostly shut, laughed, and answered, “El b’nei!” We had heard him many times, singing along with the CD as he drifted off to sleep. It was only natural for him to jump in, half asleep, at the seder.
Passover celebrates a transformative milestone in the history of the Jewish people, which we are supposed to relive each year as if we were there ourselves. The story is full of birth metaphors right down to the Hebrew term yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, which could be translated just as accurately, coming out of the narrow place. Some women prepare for birth by creating a playlist for labor, and listening during pregnancy so that the familiar music will help them relax. The same could be said for the Passover experience. If we create our playlist and make it the soundtrack of the coming month, when we come to the seder, we, and our children will be fully prepared to experience the holiday, in all its richness and joy.