Pesach is my favorite holiday. This has been true for as long as I can remember. I have always looked forward eagerly to seder, the way one looks forward to a birthday party or a vacation. When I was a kid, I loved seeing my aunts and uncles and cousins each year at this season. I loved singing the Mah Nishtanah (a.k.a. The Four Questions), I loved hunting for the afikoman with my cousins, I loved the familiar litany of songs and prayers, I loved getting to stay up late. I loved seder. (I loved getting an afikoman gift once the hidden matzah had been found.) I even loved the fact that our second-night seder was exactly the same as the first night (except for the addition of the counting of the Omer) -- children love repetition, so the fact that it was an exact reprise made it even better.
Cousins at seder, circa 1983. I'm one of the little ones.
Now my son is three and I'm bumping up hard against the question of how I can help him love Pesach the way that I do. I know I can't give him the seder experiences of my childhood. No matter how hard I try, I can't give him my memories! I had over a dozen cousins on my dad's side of the family, and Pesach was a family reunion each year. To this day, I associate these prayers and these songs and these melodies with those cousins, and that gives them an extra patina of sweetness. But that's not my son's context. He won't grow up with memories of flying to Dallas, staying at the hotel with the glassed-in elevator, going to Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Bill's for seder year after year. So what will his seder memories be, as he grows up? I've wondered this each year since he was born, but this is the first year that he's old enough to be becoming conscious of holidays -- Halloween, his birthday, etc -- so this year the question takes on added urgency.
Seder with friends, a few years before we became parents.
We never did a children-oriented seder when I was a kid. Or at least, that's not what I remember. In my memory our seder was the same year after year, the texts and practices and songs geared toward the grown-ups, with the notable exception of the Mah Nishtanah which was sung by each child in turn. Once I was old enough to read the words, I sang the Four Questions, too, and looked forward to showing off a little. (Yeah, I was that kid.) But after that I mostly remember running around the house looking for the afikoman, making sure to be away from the table during the gefilte fish course and back in time for matzah ball soup.
In talking with friends and colleagues who have young children, I'm hearing from a lot of people who do seders geared toward the youngest people present. I wonder what that would be like. Should we begin the evening building pyramids with the giant cardboard bricks we keep under the stairs, and have someone play Pharaoh who Will Not Let Us Go, and pelt the Pharaoh with stuffed frogs until he agrees to let us walk through a sea of blankets to freedom? Would that teach our son the heart of the story we retell each year, and in the retelling constitute ourselves again as a community? Would we then save the poems and prayers, the psalms and responsive readings, for after he's left the table to play in the living room with toys?
Many of the customs of the seder are designed to provoke the children at the table to ask why we're behaving so differently on this night than we do on all other nights. There's the custom of placing pillows on the chairs so that everyone can symbolically "recline," as free men did at banquets in the Ancient Near East. The custom of putting a series of strange symbolic foods on a ceremonial plate in the middle of the table -- from the roasted bone and the haroset to, these days, the olive and the orange -- and pouring an extra glass of wine for an invisible prophet who we never see. But I don't know whether these things will seem strange enough to provoke his curiosity.
At my sister's house last year for first-night seder.
I don't know yet exactly what shape our first-night seder will take, this year. (The second night, we'll be going to my shul for a community seder, which our son will attend until he runs out of patience or wakefulness, at which time his dad will bring him home.) But I'm keenly aware, as a rabbi and as a parent, that I want to find a way to open up this holiday's traditions for my son in all of their beauty. And, of course, I know that he may not even be willing to taste the matzah balls or the haroset whose flavors and textures are so evocative for me! And since right now he resists most lullabies and new songs, he may not want, this year, to learn the songs which speak to my heart.
I guess this is one more place where we'll do the best we can and hope that the love comes through. (But if you've navigated this question, or if you're navigating it now, I'd love to hear about your solutions and what turned out to work for you.)