Kid-friendly Seders deserve kudos, not bashing

Our first-night Seder was a tiny affair –for our family of three. My expectations for the night were simple: Give our 2-year-old a toddler-sized taste of Passover.

In an entry on her blog, Cantor’s Canvas, Cantor Sally Neff of Temple Beth Torah in Upper Nyack, N.J., takes families to task for devising “pediatric Seders with puppets and songs in English.” She contends: “We are changing the Seder culture for our children in order to make it more fun, and it isn’t working at all.” I beg to differ.

It’s possible some children hate attempts to be kid-friendly during a Seder. But I suspect many others are thrilled that adults care enough to keep them engaged. I started my kid-friendliness before the Seder began. My son was curious about the goings on at our dinner table so I let Simon pick out three of his plastic bowls for salt water, and he helped pour in salt and water. I opened a long-ago baby gift: a set of jumping frogs to represent the plague of frogs. While I basted the brisket, Simon played with one of the frogs, a part of our table decorations. Out of his reach on the table were the Kiddush cup from our wedding and the Miriam cup I received after my adult bat mitzvah in 2006.

Our First Night Seder lasted 20 minutes at most. We sang the Kiddush and poured sparkling grape juice for each of us. We lit the candles. We used a book called A Child’s First Haggadah by Susan Fischer Weis as our main guide – and it had one item per page. Perhaps because he helped set up the bowls, Simon was excited about dipping parsley. Well, he dipped anything green and leafy that was within his reach. At his Dad’s urging, he tried the parsley, then spit it out. Then, I hid the afikomen.

The child’s book lists the four questions in English and has a tad of Hebrew. My husband did what was natural: He sang the four questions in Hebrew, and Simon chimed in on the last few words. Then, he started fidgeting and demanding “Out. Out,” from his high chair. We skipped a page in his book, and passed around matzah. “Cracker. More cracker,” he said. We said, “Matzah,” and he soon began saying matzah. We put haroset on our matzah and Simon’s, and in toddler fashion, he pushed it off the matzah.

After dinner, Simon and his Dad hunted for the afikomen. Upon finding it under a stuffed dog, he held up the wrapped matzah and grinned. He was about to sink his teeth into the matzah when I urged him to follow me into the kitchen. I handed him a little gift, a harmonica. The first night of Passover for us concluded with family time in the living room. Simon sat in his Dad’s lap experimenting with his harmonica, and I watched, happy that we were together, happy that we had given Simon a tiny slice of Passover.

This afternoon, after Simon woke up from his nap, he asked for matzah for his snack. I still had a family Hagaddah on the table, and began reciting Had Gadya, the song about the goat. He started repeating it with me. Soon, we were singing some Passover songs together. I put on my Debbie Friedman CD and played Miriam’s Song, a favorite of mine. “Again,” Simon kept saying. We began playing with his toy bells, and some egg shakers, then Simon led me around and around the house, marching and shaking his bells. We marched, danced, and sang Miriam’s Song for 20 minutes. To him, it was all play. To me, it was sharing yet another sliver of Passover.

Tonight, our family heads to the house of friends whose Second Night Seder likely will be much longer and more traditional. We are bringing Simon, but it is doubtful he will last long at the table. I have packed a bag of toys and books, including one on Passover. Even if we have to leave the table, Simon will hear a traditional Seder in the background. Will we always do kid-friendly Seders at our house? Probably, but to me, kid-friendly is a broad term. It does not mean abandoning tradition in its entirety. It may mean having some toy jumping frogs for a 2-year-old. It may mean creating a little play about the Passover story or telling a Yiddish folk tale.

“Make a Seder for your family that you will find interesting. If you don’t care, why should your children?” writes Cantor Neff. I could not agree more. I loved our First Night Seder. My favorite part was hearing Simon’s high, sweet voice trying to parrot his father’s on the four questions. I have no doubt. Some day, on his own, he will sing those four questions to us.

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