In the middle ages, earnest Christian simpletons could purchase all manner of powerful religious relics, including thorns from Christ’s crown, splinters of the original cross, still-fresh bread He fed to the multitude, even myriad flasks of milk from the Virgin Mother herself. Had she been a cow, railed Calvin almost sacrilegiously in his 1543 Treatise on Relics, she “would have found it difficult to produce so much.” Oh how the faithful were gullible! One can only imagine what Calvin would say about the grilled cheese sandwich that resembles the Holy Mother, purchased on eBay in 2004 by the on-line casino GoldenPalace.com for $28,000.
We Jews never developed quite the same mercantile sensibility. The rabbis failed to hawk petrified manna, slivers of Moses’s staff, or shards from the original tablets. Maybe it has to do with our migratory past: it’s hard to haul around too many souvenirs while schlepping through the desert or fleeing a pogrom.
Today, however, we are more settled, and our ancestral austerity has given way to a bewildering bazaar of Jewish trinkets, keepsakes, and kitsch. True, we don’t wear flip-flops that imprint “Jesus Loves You” in the sand, or display dog nativity sets. But you can purchase a Punching Rabbi Puppet, Tevye figurines (playing a fiddle on the roof, of course), and a yarmulke and tallit for your pet’s “bark mitzvah.” Maybe a little tasteless or irreverent. But hardly worth much in the way of moral censure.
Yet one Passover amusement should give us pause: the Plague Bag.
Despite the proverbially endless seder that so many of us endured as children, Passover is for the kids. That’s the point, in a sense: to tell them the story of the Exodus. Even Chabad now host a game-themed Passovers website, with “I Shpy” and a “Moses for President” video. Online you can find seder bingo, wind-up walking matzah balls, Sam the Dancing Matzo Man Music Toy, among other gift items, all in good fun.
But the Plague Bag, which appeared a few years ago and is now available everywhere, crosses the line of taste. Admittedly, some of the plagues do lend themselves to gags, if you are so inclined. Toy frogs. Plastic lions. Fake bugs. That sort of thing. Of course, there are the less appealing pestilences: boils and blood, always good for a laugh, and the death of the firstborn. Even borscht belt comics would have a hard time with that one. Joking about the murder of children? And this when we are deporting kids and watching them die horrifically in violence around the world from Syria to, well, right here in Boston? And all in the name of jest? Something seems amiss.
The Can-O-Plagues includes a “Death of Firstborn puzzle.” The deceased child is lying peacefully, but dead nonetheless, his mother sobbing. For blood, they offer a small, plastic red cup. You can purchase it at OyToys.com. Rite-Lite Judaic Plush Passover Finger Puppets, available on Amazon, toys with that troubling final plaque as the face of child, it’s eyes closed. ReformJudaism,org has a different take on the death of the Egyptian firstborns: Wrap a small plastic baby in cloth. “He is safe. God protected the Jewish babies from this plague.” Boils are often done as little sticky hands with small dots. Other versions of blood are vials of red food colored water, cherry Bag O’Blood candy, and cinnamon fireballs. Martha Stewart – and who knew she even had a seder? – prefers “Kosher for Passover dark-chocolate-covered cherries” as blood, and Halloween skeleton stickers for the tenth plague. Heck, why not carve a jack-o’-lantern, too!
I’m not suggesting we get lathered-up in the indignation of moral panic. We face far worse plagues today than toy ones, such as rising anti-Semitism, even locally, and a White House that seems indifferent to bigotry and xenophobia. But it is precisely because we live in such troubled, violent, intolerant times that the more macabre items in the Plague Bag seem so dispiriting. Now that the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts are threatening the health and wellbeing of children, as the President of the American Academy of Pediatrics warned only a few days ago, do we really want to jest about the death of kids, even ancient ones?
Let’s keep the Plague Bag away from the seder table. If the kids get bored, they can always read the picture book Grover and Big Bird’s Passover Celebration or watch “A Rugrats Passover.”
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