Josie and Maxine with their cousin Shirley, at Passover.(Jonathan Steuer)
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Kids These Days

After a seder circus, wondering if too much emphasis on children is ruining ritual

Marjorie Ingall
April 07, 2010
Josie and Maxine with their cousin Shirley, at Passover.(Jonathan Steuer)

I often work myself into a lather trying to make Jewish ritual practice accessible to kids.

Take the seder. This year I joined the Facebook group “Great Seder Ideas for Kids!” and adopted several suggestions from it. To illustrate the plague of blood, I poured water into all the Hebrews’ glasses, then pretended to be Pharaoh and poured water into my own; I’d secretly placed a few sprinkles of red gelatin dessert powder therein, and the glass filled up with “blood.” The kids were gobsmacked as I screamed in terror. I also provided a mix of personalized seder poems and songs, combining the classic stories of our people with in-jokes and references to family members.

Our seder featured an interpretive dance interlude, inspired by Moses’s sister Miriam, in which the kids boogied under an ocean-blue sheet waved by adults. As we sang Dayenu, we beat each other with scallions, a Sephardic tradition that represents the Egyptian overseers beating the slaves. Maxine told what has become an annual joke, lifted from the delightful middle-grade novel Penina Levine Is a Hard-Boiled Egg, about a kid experiencing Passover and Easter in a multicultural world. Said joke: Can Elijah get through a screen door? He can, but it’s a strain! (Get it? A strain!)

All of this raises the question: Is this a seder or a circus?

I’m not self-congratulatory about my parenting. I am all about the second-guessing, self-flagellation, self-questioning, and guilt. And I’m worried that my attempts to tailor the seder to the kids have gone too far. Our sages have always wanted the seder to prompt questions and engagement, but when parents like me create a multimedia extravaganza, what do we lose in the process? Are we, as they say, diluting the brand?

Stephen Colbert touched on this subject last week, devoting a segment on his show to the commercialization of Passover. As Colbert put it, “Tradition-loving Pesach-poopers complain that this holiday doesn’t need leavening.” (Get it? Leavening!) He quoted Miami resident Dorothy Raphaely, who told the Wall Street Journal that “Tedium is part of the tradition.”

It’s true. As a kid, I went to Jewish day school, where texts, prayers, and rituals were taught the old-school way: by rote, in a fevered spew of Hebrew and Aramaic. There was little attempt to make things relevant. We kids understood that there were expectations: We would memorize; we would be silent; we would not confuse Judaism with a Pink Floyd sound-and-light show.

My education may not have emphasized modern-day values like multiculturalism. But when I was my kids’ age, I knew a lot more Hebrew and a lot more textual content then they do now. Sometimes I feel the tradeoff has been worth it; sometimes I don’t. I don’t mean to sound too “hey kids, get off my lawn,” but it’s not accidental that kids today have an air of entitlement earlier generations lacked. Isn’t tailoring the seder to children part of a larger cultural trend of catering to our kids’ every whim? My generation takes its kids to fancy restaurants and smiles tolerantly as they hurl dinner rolls. When our kids get in trouble, we blame the other kid, the teacher, the school, the playground, the community. Are we really doing our kids—or our society, in the long term—any favors by convincing them the sun rises and sets upon their golden, flawless heads?

And when we turn a seder into the ritual equivalent of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, aren’t we giving up a meaningful, mysterious adult night? My child-free friend Lori and my editor Liel host sedarim that involve discussions and debates about free will and international politics. Meanwhile, my seder involves wearing a mask that looks like boils.

I spent a lot of my childhood hiding novels inside siddurim. I was bored a lot. But I also understood that there was a huge, important grown-up world I would one day be privy to. Is it possible that some presents are worth waiting for? Life isn’t one big afikomen gift.

I think hardest about this question during the High Holidays. It’s been eight years since I had a truly spiritual experience. These days I attend children’s services and devote my attention to hushing, shushing, and quivering with worry that my kids are not sufficiently engaged, or, alternately, that I should have given them the kind of education where they expect not to be sufficiently engaged. I realize that Orthodox Judaism gives moms like me an out, excusing women from all time-bound mitzvot. But whatever your level of observance, not being obligated to do something doesn’t mean you don’t necessarily want to do something. I’m always torn. I want my kids to love Judaism, to feel drawn in to our narratives, to make connections between ancient stories and the world they live in today. But I also mourn the personal engagement with text I once had. Does becoming a parent—particularly a mother—inherently mean buckling your own intellectual needs into a booster seat in the way-back?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions. And I suppose the tensions can be productive. “It is a part of the human condition to live in polarities,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel in God in Search of Man. “A challenge is not the same as a clash, and divergence does not mean a conflict.” But I’m not F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I don’t pass his test of a first-rate mind: the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. Instead, I whiplash back and forth between worrying about engagement and worrying about traditionalism; I fret about the state of future generations (the ones eating candied fruit slices at my own table) and the state of my own. But that too is part of the history of our people, after all.

I suppose I should take comfort in a quote from that Wall Street Journal article that Stephen Colbert did not share on TV: “We have to make sure that rituals don’t become dead symbols,” says Rabbi Kenneth Brander, a dean at Yeshiva University.

The dean’s right—no meaningful religion can be frozen in amber. But how to balance relevance and respect, the needs of the many and the needs of the few? The tension can get overwhelming. It’s brutal feeling that we can’t let ourselves, or our kids, off the hook. To some degree, I suppose I’ll just have to be patient; as my kids become more independent, I’ll regain more of my own spiritual focus.

Or so I hope. Perpetually angsting over how to be the best Jewish parent you can be isn’t really productive. Parenting is easier when we just take it holiday by holiday, plague by plague.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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