Tips on Child-Friendly Judaism

“And you shall teach them to your children…”

To My Dear Sons,

As we continue preparing for Pesach, I am reminded of how important it is to keep the Jewish holidays child-relevant, and fun.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all there is to do — cleaning, organizing, clearing away the physical and spiritual manifestations of leaven from our lives.  But if we spend the last week or two of preparation screaming at each other, we’ve entirely missed the point.

We had a Seder guest once who told us that he had left Judaism because there was no fun in being Jewish in his house.  His parents would only let him play with toys that seemed to them sanctioned by the Torah.  You can imagine that his playthings were rather limited.  He had dreidels.  He had a stuffed Torah scroll.  He even convinced his parents to let him have a boat filled with animals, as a representation of Noah’s Ark.  He never looked forward to holidays, as they were times filled with tension, and very little joy.  Certainly nothing as mundane as “fun.”

We had so much to learn when you were young.  We took everything very seriously, of course, fearing that “coloring outside the lines” would be perceived as bad Judaism.  At first, we tried to pick up tricks and tips from neighbors and friends.  We bribed you with far too much candy to stay at the Seder table, as we painstakingly read all the words of the Hagaddah and followed all of the steps.  Lots of candy well into the night surrounded by boring words you couldn’t understand wasn’t the best sitting-still-at-the-table recipe.  The expression “herding cats” comes to mind.

At last, we were blessed to hear a taped lecture by Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik about how he conducted his Seder.  He and his wife might entertain forty guests.  But the guests were asked to understand that the Seder was directed at the Rav’s children.  He would discuss well into the night any insights his guests cared to share; but the primary focus of the Seder would be his son and daughters.  He would tell the story in terms that would interest them, and would make them participants in the great adventure of escaping Mitzrayim.

What a weight was lifted off of us with these words!  Long before the “Box of Plagues” phenomenon, your father gathered all kinds of stuffed animals and plastic insects and frogs.  He made “magic” before your eyes, pouring plain water into a glass, and producing powdered drink mix “blood.”  My favorite part each year was the way Abba handled barad, the plague of fire-filled hail.  As you were sent as a gaggle from the room, ostensibly to coach each other about the next plague to be discussed, Abba sent me to the kitchen to put on my snap-brim Fedora and sunglasses, and to sneak up on you with my Nerf machine gun.  Much joyful warfare ensued, as you were pelted (and pelted each other) with Nerf balls.

These wild and crazy Pesach Seders have evolved as you have grown, so that now they are more sedate, and more focused on the holiness of the experience. As your Hebrew has improved, you have become our teachers; and we listen and discuss with you with awe and respect and pride.  But your love for Pesach, and for many of the other Jewish holidays, grew from those joyful events that centered around you, instead of around words and ideas beyond you.

It is a pleasure now to listen to you speak together about carrying on the family custom of making the Seder fun and interactive for your own children.  May they, as you, see the joy in Judaism, blossoming into a full love of its deep and moving messages.

About the Author
After serving in the US military, Ruti Eastman (aka Ruti Mizrachi) married her hero, homeschooled four sons, and intermittently worked in the field of education over a span of 30 years. She has worked in radio, has played in several bands, and teaches harmonica and percussion. Ruti and her family made aliyah in 2007. She currently maintains two blogs, one about Israel, called “Ki Yachol Nuchal!” and the other about general topics such as family, childrearing, marriage, and family history, called “Never Ruthless." Ruti Eastman has published two books of essays on the above topics, both available on Amazon.