April 4, 2011
Our Passover celebration journey started when our son was two. Our close friends, who are also an interfaith family, invited us to their traditional seder which used a children's Haggadah. This condensed version of the ritual appealed to both the non-Jewish husbands and the toddlers' attention span. What made the evening special was sharing the holiday with a family like ours and, for our son, the toy plagues, coloring pages and playing with a friend.
This celebration itself would have been enough to qualify as different from any seder I attended as a child. The seders of my youth were formal affairs: the man of the house leading the service from a Haggadah which had the readers' names marked in pencil. There were no attempts to make anything child-friendly. We were expected to sit quietly and wait until we were called upon to recite the Four Questions. Besides looking for the afikomen, the highlight of the holiday was sitting at a table with my older cousins at my uncle's house on the second night.
I didn't want this to be my son's memory of Passover. I wanted him to look forward to this holiday that is so central to Judaism. I felt that if I was going to raise a child with a strong Jewish identity in an interfaith home, Passover needed to be more than a box that was checked on the holiday celebration list. It needed to be engaging.
To that end, I hosted the second night and invited our friends, many of whom are also interfaith. Rather than repeat the seder ritual we all participated in the night before, I decided to tell the Passover story by reading children's books. As I learned, we are only commanded to retell the story of our redemption. There is nothing dictating how it must be told.
The first two years we read Shalom Sesame's Passover Coloring Book. As the children outgrew Sesame Street, we read Sammy Spider's First Passover, Dinosaur on Passover and Max's Four Questions. The story was followed by a meal that included traditional foods, toy plagues for the kids and a simulation of the hail plague using bubble wrap. We taped the bubble wrap to the wood floors in our house and let our son and his friends run, jump and stamp on it to make the sounds of falling hail. The squeals and giggles as the bubbles popped made me smile and this activity quickly became a holiday highlight.
The fun aspect of our observance served to make the holiday something our son and his friends looked forward to, and helped to underscore for the pre-schoolers the importance of telling this story. When my son's friend told me one September that she couldn't wait to come to our house for Passover, I was ready to declare "Mission Accomplished." But I felt that there was room for our holiday celebration to grow. When our temple decided to host a second night congregational seder last year, I thought it offered the opportunity to expand our observance and deepen our son's understand of the holiday.
Our synagogue's seder was big and long, but also thought-provoking and fun. By celebrating with a large community, it gave my son perspective on the scope of the holiday's importance to Jews. It was also a subtle way of saying to my almost six-year-old, "you're growing up and can start to observe the holiday in big kid ways."
At the same time, I didn't want to lose our home celebration or miss being with our friends on the first night. As I thought about what do, I remembered that some Jews observed the last days of the holidays with festive services so I decided to move our Passover ritual to the eighth day. Growing up in Reform homes, marking the end of the holiday was not something my friends or I had ever done. But everyone was open to the idea. As I planned the celebration, I thought about what observing the last day of the holiday offered and I realized that beyond the opportunity to be together, it provided a way for us to reinforce our families' Jewish identities and celebrate our freedom — our freedom to create vibrant, Jewish homes even when one parent is of another faith; develop new traditions, different from our parents'; instill a love for Judaism through fun ritual observance; and find a way to observe that works for us.
The inaugural eighth day meal at our house included experiments using red liquids of different densities to determine which Red Sea would be easiest to part, the building of matzah pyramids with icing and candy (a Jewish version of a gingerbread house) and, of course, a showering of hail made from the popping of bubble wrap. What made this Passover celebration different for me was that it was uncharted territory. Since I did not grow up observing the last days of the holiday, I had no preconceived notion of how it was supposed to be and was not afraid to be creative. While traditionalists might not approve, for a group of families in Dallas this lively, non-traditional observance brought us together to mark an important Jewish event and has helped our children embrace and celebrate their religion.
As I prepare for our second eighth day celebration, I know the bubble wrap and matzah pyramids will return and, now that the kids are older, I am planning to ask them each to draw something about the Passover story to share with the group. As I look to grow our new ritual and my son and his friends get older, I continue to search for new ideas or activities to keep the celebration fresh. Through this search for ways to make Judaism and its practice enjoyable for my son, I am learning how much fun it is to be Jewish. For me, that's what makes this Passover meal different.