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Jewish Journal

Passionate About Passover

by Robin Siegal

March 14, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Each year I search for ways to make the entire week of Passover come alive for my family -- not just the seders. I get excited about the holiday, always finding a surprise experience to create for my children, depending on their ages and stages. I passionately search the library and Internet, looking for new meanings to the holiday. Each year there is something old and something new at our family seders. I also look for experiences before Passover begins, as well as during the week.

Before Passover begins

We spend a great deal of time cleaning and changing the entire kitchen. In addition, the kids empty out my minivan of all their "kid junk" so I can have it thoroughly cleaned before Pesach. Every year, my husband and kids kvetch about all of the work needed to be done. Mom becomes the "Egyptian taskmaster," forcing them -- their words, not mine -- to clean, carry boxes, move furniture, prepare fruits and vegetables, set the tables, etc. The entire house is a frenzy of cleaning, organizing and food preparation.

They soon identify with the Jewish slaves of Egypt, and many questions unfold: "Why do we have to go through all this fuss?" "Why can't we eat whatever we want?" "Does God really care about all of this?" My three beloved children and husband take on many of the characteristics of the Four Sons.

The conversations become opportunities for questions, disagreement and meaningful yiddishkeit. The secular and ordinary tasks of our household become transformed into something greater than ourselves. We are now working together as a family with a sacred mission, a purpose, as Jews have done for hundreds of years. When we sit down exhausted to the seder, there is a real sense of accomplishment. We are an essential part of the Jewish story.

Bedikat chametz, bi'ur chametz and bittul chametz

The night before Passover, when all the chametz (leaven) has been removed, I scatter 10 pieces of bread throughout the family room. Our tradition calls this bedikat chametz (the search for chametz), instructing us to hold a feather and lighted candle to gather the bread pieces in a paper bag. You can purchase a bedikat chametz kit or make your own. The room is darkened and the hunt is on. My children, even the older ones, look forward to this, especially when we burn the bag of bread the next day. This ritual is called bi'ur chametz (the destruction of chametz before Passover).

Kids have a fascination with hide-and-seek -- and fire. In addition, bittul chametz is the nullification of our chametz possessions. We prefer to give much of our food to SOVA, the Jewish food bank, to share with others. In addition, our rabbi symbolically transfers ownership of our food, to another person for the week of Passover.

Shopping at the kosher markets

I'm the master shopper most of the year, usually avoiding taking my children to the market because I usually end up with more kid purchases than planned. But when I take them to the kosher markets or special Passover sections of the larger grocery chains, the sky's the limit. We break the rules! We look for as many kosher-for-Passover goodies as we can get our hands on.

Finding delectables of every flavor keeps the kids more satisfied for the entire week. In addition, I shlep them to the kosher markets because I want them to see all of the Passover food choices we have, an entirely different experience than when I was growing up. The food shopping becomes a pedagogic experience, as they ask me questions while looking for permissible foods. The "Passover junk food" (an oxymoron?) definitely reaches its quotient, but everyone seems satiated by the end of the week.

Something old

For years, our family seders were held at the home of my beloved Bubby and Gramps. Even though they are no longer with us, we use some of the objects from their seders. We incorporate their seder traditions as a way to preserve our collective family memory. We speak of them and they are now seated at the table beside us. My grandmother's Passover paraphernalia is used on the table: all of her silver bechers (wine cups), her crystal used to hold the parsley and celery sticks; her little plastic matzah boxes with her age-worn matzah covers, her faded afikomen bag and her silver pitcher for hand washing. Even one of their old worn Maxwell House haggadot is there beside me.

I cherish these items, which my thoughtful aunts bring to my home each year for the family to use. These items are treasures to us. We honor Bubby and Gramps' memory, but even more important, we honor their commitment about living our lives passionately as Jews. Our family seder wouldn't be complete without these items used year after year.

We also use some of my grandmother's recipes, trying to replicate the foods she served us. My mother and two aunts help me prepare many of the Passover comfort foods Bubby made.

Something new

I watched Bubby add new things to her seders: a reading about Soviet Jews, a clever and witty song, a personal family blessing. By her example, I started adding readings to our family seders when I was in high school. My grandfather encouraged me to sit beside him and co-lead the seder.

In those days, he indulged my need to read pieces about Jewish feminism and changing the God language to be "gender-neutral." He encouraged me to lead beside him, and see myself as having a larger role as a Jewish woman, both in and outside of the kitchen. I will forever be grateful to my grandparents for encouraging my active participation at the seders. This was truly "leadership training" at its best, because it inspired me to be both the baleboste and seder leader.

By my grandparent's example, I have sought to create new experiences for my own family. The seders have been greatly influenced by the ages of my three children and what they were learning in school. Their school-made Passover projects have held a sacred place, alongside the silver and crystal at the table. I lovingly bring out a few of their handmade haggadot and afikomen bags, even those from preschool, and wonder where the time has gone.

The following is a list of some ideas I've borrowed and adapted from other sources. Feel free to experiment and challenge yourself. Even one or two new ideas employed will give each Passover a unique memory, and perhaps create a new family tradition.

1. Pharaoh comes to our seder

Last year, I rented a Pharaoh headdress from a local costume shop. My husband wore it for the maggid, the part of the seder that tells the story of the Exodus. My two sons played Moses and Aaron, complete with beards, and my daughter was Miriam. I interviewed each of them to tell their side of the story. They gave us a glimpse of each character's perspective in the Passover saga. The second night, we traded roles and costumes. Everyone loved it, and the story came alive for us.

Another year I acted the part of Shifra, one of the midwives who risked her life to assist in the birth of Moses. The children listened with awe as I described how dangerous those times were. I recounted the story of the plagues and the Exodus. I recreated the story from the female perspective, also giving voice to Miriam, Moses' sister. The "old woman" also engaged the children with questions, to foster an appreciation of the drama of the story and our personal and communal connection to it, rather than a dry, monotonous reading.

2. Passover trivia

I research and gather different Passover facts. Some are quite simple for the kids -- how many times is the number four repeated in our Seder? -- to the more challenging for the adults -- what are the names of Moses' mother and father? As answers are given correctly, I throw a piece of kosher-for-Passover Bazooka bubble gum across the room to the person who has answered correctly.

I sprinkle the trivia questions throughout the Seder, so they are imbedded into the experience. Many questions are easy for those that have been paying attention. They have to keep on their toes. The kids love the challenge and stay involved throughout the evening as the bubble gum flies around the room.

3. Passover diorama

The kids and I gather items that replicate the Exodus story. This becomes the centerpiece at the head table. We have a miniature Pharaoh troll -- thanks to the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas -- a Beanie Baby camel, a blue foam Nile River and floating baby Moses in the basket of reeds and a homemade pyramid. Some years the pyramid has been made out of LEGOs, papier-mache or charoset. There are locusts, frogs, mini-Moses and clothespin Israelites sprinkled throughout the tables. The kids love taking out these "Passover action heroes" and take a special pride in decorating the table.

4. "Frogs were jumping everywhere"

Like the words of the well-known Passover children's song, my dear friend, Wendy, has a Passover frog fetish. Each year, she places various frogs throughout her dining room. We marvel at all of her frogs, and our eyes roam throughout the room to see frogs hanging from the chandelier, frogs she has hand-painted onto bowls, Beanie Baby frogs, frog bookmarks -- she even wears frog brooch.

Over the years, I have bought her a few frog items to add to her collection. She makes it a challenge to see who can find and count up all of the frogs.

5. Passover music

We sing the traditional songs in the seder. However, we listen to contemporary Jewish artists' Passover music. My kids enjoy Cindy Paley's Passover CD, and we have used it as inspiration during our house cleaning. Last year, I bought Debbie Friedman's Passover CD, and we incorporated some of her incredible songs into the seder experience.

The seder's heart and soul are transformed by beautiful and rich melodies from all over the world, both old and new. The kids enjoy hearing the songs they have grown up with. At the same time its important for them to see the ever-evolving role of Jewish music.

6. Wine tasting

Why use the same old standbys of Concord grape? There are so many incredible kosher-for-Passover wines you and your guests can enjoy to increase the ta'am (flavor). Be careful not to use the silver cups with certain wines, because the taste will be altered. In addition, there are some delicious nonalcoholic varieties for those who do not drink alcohol.

7. Charoset tasting

I usually prepare several charoset recipes from different countries. I want my children to see that we are part of the Jewish Diaspora experience, adapting our traditions to our countries of residence. It's important for them to see they are part of a larger world Jewish family. I love trying new recipes each year, and the guests enjoy tasting the different flavors and textures. I also have a charoset pyramid, which they love to dismantle, bite by bite. For those of you proud Californians, Judy Zeidler has a great California charoset with ingredients from our Sunshine State.

8. Use your local print shop

Feel free to copy readings that are meaningful and incorporate them into your seder each year. Your haggadah should never be confined to the printed page. I keep several beside me, in addition to handing out supplemental readings for all to use.

As the developmental needs of your children change and grow, so, too, should aspects of the seder, with readings and questions to match. Don't be fearful to embellish the experience with new words, insights and questions.

9. "Invite the stranger in your midst"

From the time I was young, I remember my grandparents always having guests at our seders. We continue this important mitzvah each year by inviting friends and strangers, both Jew and gentile, to participate in our seder. I call the rabbi's office and offer my home.

A few years ago, we had a young man from South America considering conversion. Another year, it was a young couple and their babies who were new to the Los Angeles area. A local synagogue or Hillel can help you find people eager to share a family-style seder. It's also very important that my children participate in this important mitzvah, seeing this as a lifelong mitzvah of hospitality.

10. Chol ha'moed

The intermediate days of Passover offer rich experiences to my family. The eating of matzah and the abstinence from chametz are all encompassing during the week. Every excursion outside the house takes on new meaning and challenge, as we take the Passover foods along with us, to school and work.

At times, my kids have been embarrassed by the foods. Other times, they have willingly shared these "funny crackers" with their public school friends, just as I did many years ago. Last year the kids went with my non-observant brother-in-law to Disney's California Adventure during Passover. He respectfully schlepped the container of permissible Passover foods. While the kids kvetched about this, they were pleasantly surprised to run into some friends during lunch.

My daughter remarked at how proud she was to see the picnic area filled with Jews observing Passover, and the kinship she felt with them. I privately thanked God for that moment between us.

Look for ways to enrich your life, crafting your observance of Passover with new meaning, renewed kavannah (inspired intention and aim) and passion for Passover.

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