Sometimes the most challenging part of being a committed Reform Jew is seeking ways to incorporate Judaism into our home life in ways that are meaningful. Complicating matters for our family is that our oldest child, Ben, is on the autism spectrum. And so incorporating anything into our regular routine can prove to be challenging for one who thrives on consistency.
Shavuot, which begins at sundown this evening, has always gotten the short end of the stick in our household. Although it is one of the three major festivals on the Jewish calendar, it has been the hardest to observe with our kids. Reform communities tend to have the main celebration during the evening service at the beginning of the holiday. But for families with young children, and those with family members who go to bed very early, evening observances are often out of the realm of reason. Not because the family is not committed to observing the holiday, but because it is simply not possible given the current circumstances. And that is certainly the case in our home.
So while I, as an adult, crave the spiritual and intellectual experiences that Shavuot has the potential to give me, my children need something different. And I, as the parent, am charged with creating a Shavuot observance that will inspire them and become part of our family’s story.
It takes a different shape each year as the needs and developmental stages of our kids shift. There is, however, one constant; ice cream.
The tradition to serve dairy foods on Shavuot is long-standing and has several explanations for its origin. Whatever the reason, it became clear to me that a great way to connect my kids to this tradition was to serve ice cream. One year it was an ice cream cake in the shape (sort-of) of a Torah. That happened once and only once. Over time, it has become our tradition to have a sundae bar for dinner. With crudités, cheese, and crackers as a forshpeis. Sparkling limeade and a fancy table set with flowers and crystal send the message that it is a night unlike other nights. By candlelight, God-willing, our conversation will include discussions of Torah, ancient and modern. Suggestions of how we might still hear God speaking to and through us will be shared. And in the morning, a breakfast of milk (still with the dairy theme) and Entenmann’s Rich Frosted Donuts. Because I ate them for the first time at my very first all-night Shavuot study session as a kid. Because they were a favourite of my grandmother, z”l, and it keeps her memory alive for my children. Because the study of Torah is never-ending.
Traditional? Not in the normative sense. But it is our family’s tradition. While they are young. And when they are ready for a more conventional observance, that is what we will do. Though I suspect ice cream will still be involved.
As a rabbi who also happens to be a mother of small kids, I am often asked for creative ideas to enliven a seder. I have decided to dedicate this post to sharing some of these ideas. Feel free to pass it around, and please use the comments section below to share some of your own creative rituals.
The truth is, our family’s seders are long – very long – and our kids are back and forth from the table all evening. They are present for the pieces that are meaningful to them, and they play during the sections that feel more “adult.” I believe that just as it is important to engage the kids in the seder rituals, it is also important to engage the adults in deep thought and discovery. It is also vital for our kids to see that the seder is not simply a pediatric ritual, but rather an experience that speaks to people of each and every age. Therefore, this list includes ideas for both kids and adults. Enjoy!
- Karpas: This is my number one suggestions for keeping a seder strong. When we dip parsley in salt water, we say “borei pri ha’adamah” – the blessing over the fruit of the earth. This means that we have actually created an opening to eat any “fruit” that comes from the earth, i.e. vegetables – broccoli, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus… even strawberries dipped in chocolate! In fact, since we’ve already dipped in salt water, we figure we might as well keep up the dipping – which is what the well-to-do in Greco-Roman times did at their symposium banquets, the main inspiration for the seder. So… balsamic vinaigrette, salsa, olive oil, mayonnaise – anything that you can dip vegetables in can make this section even more fun. In our family, we have found that people are much more willing to engage in rich seder conversation when they have a full plate of appetizers in front of them. We are excited to hear all questions, but “When do we eat?” is far less relevant, because we are grazing throughout the entire seder.
- Mah Nishtanah: Did you know that, according to the Talmud, you are only obligated to ask the Four Questions if other questions have not yet been asked? The Four Questions exist as a way of sparking a questioning environment. In addition to singing these questions, we can do other things to inspire questions as well. The rabbis of the Talmud speak about clearing the host’s plate before s/he has eaten in order to attract people’s attention and invite questions (Why in the world are you doing THAT?) We too can do things a little bit differently to get the questions rolling. Put odd toys on the table. Wear something strange on your head. Once people start asking questions, rewarding questioners with candy and other goodies (thrown across the table, of course!) is a great way to keep the inquisitive nature of the conversation ripe.
- Speaking of Questions: Pre-plan some of them. Look through the Haggadah. Look online. Ask your Rabbi. Come up with some key discussion topics that will engage your guests in deeper and more creative thinking. An example: How can matzah be both “the bread of our affliction” and a symbol of our freedom? How can one item symbolize both concepts, opposite in nature? Discuss!
- Costumes: Invite guests to come dressed in character. Or, better yet, provide a costume box to enable people to grab some garb before they sit down.
- Passover Poetry: Invite your guests to come with their own Passover haikus. Haikus are fairly easy to write, and can be very funny and also incredibly poignant. Incorporating a range of haikus, written by guests, can add to the creative vibe of any seder. Got a really creative guest list? Invite them to come with a “poetry slam”-style piece on the topic of “slavery” or “freedom.”
- Turn Your Table into a Beit Midrash: Bring articles, Jewish texts, and poetry and pass them out to your guests. Have your guests sit with a chevrutah partner and learn their piece for 10 or 15 minutes, and then regroup and invite each partnership to share what they have learned.
- Niggunim and Songs: Don’t be afraid to sing, and others will follow. Song inspires the soul, and even a song leader who is not a Broadway star can enliven a seder with spirit and joy. There are great resources online for traditional seder songs, as well as Passover lyrics written to modern and funny melodies.
- We Were Slaves in Egypt: Tell the story in your own words. Put down the Haggadah, and place yourself into the world of ancient Egypt. WE were slaves… when we left Egypt, were we scared? Were we excited? What did we bring? As we stood at the sea, what did we see? There is the possibility here of inviting guests to take on different roles, speaking from the “I” perspective, and reliving the voyage of our ancestors. Invite one guest to serve as the moderator. (Oprah Winfrey style!)
- Now We Are Free: Invite guests to bring an item that represents their freedom. This could be an object that reminds them of an aspect of freedom, or it could be something that represents an aspect of their lives that would be very different if they were not free. Ask guests to put their item on the table and share its story to your seder community.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Move: The seder doesn’t have to happen at a dinning room table. Some years, we have done the whole first half of the seder in the living room, Bedouin style. This enables guests to sit on couches, chairs, and on pillows and back-jacks on the floor, and invites kids to move around, while still participating in the discussion.
- Scallions Aren’t Just For Eating: There is a Persian custom of hitting each other with scallions during Dayenu. The scallions represent the whips of our oppressors. Although this may seem a little morbid, young and old alike have a wonderful time violating social norms and slamming each other with green onions.
- Orange on the Seder Plate: The orange on the seder plate has come to symbolize full inclusion of the GLBT community, as well as women, in modern day Judaism. Encourage guests to consider how we make our communities open and welcoming of people who may seem different from us. This can include folks with disabilities, people who are intermarried, divorced, struggling financially, etc.
- Become Elijah the Prophet: Tradition tells us that we have a cup for Elijah at our seder, in the hope that he will come and usher in the messianic age. We don’t need to wait for the messiah to bring an end to injustice, slavery, and destruction. We can connect with the piece of Elijah that resides in each of us, and work for a better tomorrow right here, today. Invite guests to articulate what they can do to create more light and more holiness in our world.
- Miriam’s Cup: Tradition teaches us that a well of water followed Miriam wherever she went, and quenched the thirst of the people Israel. We call our Torah a “mayim chayim,” living waters, because the customs of the Jewish people sustain us emotionally and spiritually and fill our lives with meaning. Invite guests to speak about a particular experience that has sustained them this past year.
- Modern Day Slavery: On Pesach, we tell the story of our people’s trajectory, our people’s movement from the pain of slavery to the joy of freedom. There are people today, right here in the United States and throughout the world, who are still enslaved. We call this human trafficking. Educate guests about the realities of slavery today, and encourage them to take a stand in fighting these horrifying modern atrocities.
Chag Sameach! May we all be blessed with meaningful and dynamic seders, and may the entire holiday of Passover be sweet. Next year in Jerusalem!
Passover is coming and, as always, it is causing a certain amount of anxiety for certain members of the family. The issue? Kitniyot.
Let’s take one step back and define chametz as understood by the rabbis. There are only five grains that according to Jewish law, can ferment and become chametz. These are wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye. [Times have certainly changed. When I was young, I can't imagine where one might have found spelt. Today, spelt bread can be found in my neighborhood market.] It so happens that matzah can only be made using one of these five grains. Traditional Jewish law forbids eating, owning, or deriving benefit from these five grains in any amount and in any form throughout the holiday — with the obvious exception being when they are used to make matzah.
So far so good.
About seven hundred years ago, Ashkenazic practice began to forbid the consumption of rice, millet (yeah, I had to look up millet too), and legumes (e.g. peas, beans, alfalfa, lentils, carob, soy, and peanuts). Corn was added to the forbidden list at some point. These foodstuffs were termed kitniyot. Even before this practice, there were Talmudic discussions about the status of rice and millet, with a notable amount of disagreement.
Refraining from eating kitniyot during Passover used to fall strictly along ethnic lines. In the last several years, however, more and more Askenazic Jews have started to question and reject this practice.
I am conflicted. I didn’t used to be conflicted. That’s not to say I enjoyed abstaining from kitniyot or even that I agreed with the prohibition. I felt strongly, however, about upholding the culinary traditions that have been in my family for generations.
But life is more complicated when it’s touched by Asperger’s. Everything is affected by it. Eating habits are especially affected by it. For several years, I have been wondering if it is really worth it to engage in a practice that was described by several Rishonim, such as Rabbenu Yerucham (Beit Yosef OH 453), as “foolish.”
A couple of years ago, we decided to open up our food choices to include the consumption of kitniyot. And while this makes for more plentiful menu options with the prohibited foods being limited to the five grains (wheat, oats, barely, spelt, and rye), Passover has lost something for me. Maybe because it no longer feels like such a hardship. And while Passover is not intended to be an exercise in asceticim, there ought to be some sense of deprivation in order to have some understanding of our ancestors’ experience. Without the ban on kitniyot, it feels like a corn-filled free-for-all.
If corn is OK, what would be the reason for not eating corn tortillas? Regular chocolate? If rice is OK, are Rice Krispies forbidden? I worry that Pesach isreduced to abstention from bread and pasta. Nothing more.
And so I struggle in finding a way to honor the traditions of my ancestors while respecting my son’s challenges. Maybe that struggle is where I will find the most meaning this Passover.