Monday, April 11, 2011

Has Seder gone cutesy? האם סדר פסח הפך ל"פנן"

When I read this article, I thought I’d plotz: Now we’re supposed to be concerned about the 10 Plagues’ psychological effects on our delicate little tatelehs? I give you a few excerpts from this absurd piece:

“It leads me to wonder,” says Nussbaum. “Is it possible to engage with the Seder’s graphic illustrations of God’s might without leaving the kids emotionally or spiritually scarred?”

Oh, please. This is clearly an attempt to find a “fresh angle” to a festival about which — admit it — everything’s already been said.

“Some of the things [in the Haggadah] sound amazingly scary and awful,” said Miami-based psychotherapist and author M. Gary Neuman.

So now we’re consulting psychotherapists about the Haggada’s effect on the *kinder*? Spare me.

Then we have psychologist Clark Goldstein helpfully advising parents to:

“…take their cues from their children, paying attention to the child’s age and disposition…If the child brings up concerns… address them. Try not to ask leading questions, like, ‘Does that section scare you?’ Let them lead with any concerns or questions they might have.”

Dear God. Was this quote lifted from some Parents’ Guide to Divorce or God Forbid, Death? Have we lost our minds? This is nothing less than a meshugeneh stop along the Coddling Continuum. Disturbing? We were shown Night and Fog at Hebrew School at age nine, and I don’t recall ever even considering approaching my parents about its, shall we say, disturbing aspects. And now we’re supposed to add “Possible Effect of 10 Plagues on Yankeleh’s Sensitive Psyche” to our list of 21st-century Parenting Concerns, underneath Exposure to Germs and Abduction by Sex Predator?

Later on, Neuman adds: “Seder’s focus ‘should be about the children, and connecting to them.”

Says who? Actually, if I hear one more person say this, I’m going to throw myself into a vat of locusts. Let’s take a minute to realign our tires here: The Haggada was compiled between 160 and 360 CE. Granted, the Mishnaic concept of “engaging children” is obviously light years from ours; and certainly no one wants to return to the days of Uncle Moishe or Zaydeh droning through the Haggada so tediously that a vat of locusts would actually have beeen a relief from your boredom, but does that mean we have to go to the other extreme and turn Seder into an episode of Sesame Street?

Cannot Seder be lively and thought-provoking without having to dodge whizzing stuffed frogs and Styrofoam hail? In short, where is it written that engaging has to equal fun? Fun is what Purim is for. Fun is what birthdays are for. Not everything that occurs in the presence of children has to be fun.

The Haggada tells of a solemn, dramatic event, and the telling thereof should be appropriately solemn and dramatic. One of the major themes is to “tell your sons [i.e., children] of the Exodus. I’d venture that the reason Seder is so central to Jews’ collective memory is precisely because of its solemnity and drama. Do we want our kids’ memories of Seder to be no more impactful than an afternoon at Discovery Zone?

Next, I looked up the product pictured with the article, Passover Ten Plagues Finger Puppets. Here’s my Amazon review thereof:

"...products like this are a turn-off for me. First of all, a basic "requirement" for me to buy any Jewish-themed product is the inclusion of Hebrew. Where's the Hebrew? So right away I'm not buying it. The other turn-off is that I'm loath to add anything to the Seder that's not already there, especially if it's something cutesy. You can have a good time at Seder and include the kids without turning it into a nursery school. This is pushing it too far in that direction for me."

It’s not the commercial aspect to which I object; I'm certainly in favor of clever, enterprising innovation. But to purport to sell a Jewish product sans Hebrew? Veto from here: Hebrew is what held us together for over two millennia in the Diaspora; I refuse to patronize any Jewish enterprise that omits it. Even if the recipient doesn’t know Hebrew — and I’m aware that most Jews don’t — the visual of the Hebrew words for the Plagues does have its effect, however small, and does transform the product into something that if not holy, is special: It’s not Just Another Toy in the kids’ collection.

To that end, I wrote to both companies to ask: Where’s the Hebrew? Perhaps if others followed suit, the manufacturers would be convinced to add it; certainly no one would be opposed to its addition, and who knows? It might even boost sales.

I’m not calling for a boycott, here; Lord knows there are more important products to boycott; I simply seek to call attention to the fact that Hebrew is not just another language: It’s our “brand”; without it, we become “generic”. And I’ll jump into a vat of locusts before I let 5,000 years of history go down the drain like so much chametz.


  1. Why do we keep acting like THIS generation is the dumbest, most vulnerable one in HISTORY? If about 2000 years of Jewish children have survived the Seder -- perhaps even RELISHED the Seder -- because of its drama, why do we think THIS generation can't handle it? Gag me with a bitter herb. -- Lenore Skenazy, Founder of Free-Range Kids

  2. Whoever objects to the stories of the Bible on the basis that they are too frightening for children should object to fairy tales. If you really take them seriously, beware! The goblin will get you if you don't watch out.
    As for me, so much of the Bible as a history is horrible crap, BUT for its time and for today there are valuable morals and ethics which should be inbibed and are needed today.

  3. I'm Catholic, but rolled Lenore's link here. THIS is an important line: "Not everything that occurs in the presence of children has to be fun."

    So very true. As a repeat parent, my first parenting turn began nearly 30 years ago, my second round only 4, I can see a change in howentertained children must be. Situations, like Sedar, or our praying of the Stations of the Cross, that are meant to be solemn and respectful are made into children's parties, depriving children of the chance to learn how to be solemn and respectful. Events that were meant for children and designed to be playful, Purim, Christmas presents from Santa, must now be screamingly exciting instead of just fun. The idea of a trade off, that for behaving properly through some agonizingly dull grown up thing there will be cousins to see, or Granny's cooking, or staying up past bedtime, or something relevant to the event and enjoyable, is lostthese days

  4. Other than the Afikomen and the Four Questions, my childhood Seders involved no special call outs to child involvement, and I still remember loving them. In fact, in many ways I loved them more because they -were- such an adult experience. I dressed up nicely, the table was beautifully set, there were arcane rules and rituals. It felt like being included in the world of adults, rather than having adults shape their world around us. When did parents lose sight of the idea that children WANT the trappings of adulthood, and the opportunity to learn adult information (like what happened to the first born) and participate in adult rituals. Why must we infantilize EVERYTHING?

  5. You're right, of course; the themes of seder are slavery and freedom, miracles, and the survival of an intact, religion-defined, special group of people. Maybe part of our much-touted intelligence involves growing up with (and keeping one's mind on which one is appropriate) three languages: Hebrew, Yiddish / Ladino, and the language of the country that lets you live there. Through the ages our children have HAD to learn Hebrew; why have we grown so slack in our requirements? A resource I plan to use with my grandchildren is At least our *kinder* are fluent in computer-ese. We need to bring back the concept of "This is something you simply MUST do." If you can make it fun, so much the better.

  6. Wow, MomAgain, I'm honored that a non-Jew chose to comment on this post, and so eloquently. So cool that you could relate to it. Liz, liked what you have to say too. Mollie, good for you for finding an online Hebrew resource for the *kinder*. Even a few words / concepts is better than nothing. I'm still astounded that my Hebrew School didn't even bother teaching us the Hebrew names of the Five Books. Now every time my kids mention "Vayikrah" or say they're having a test on *Shmot*, I have to recite them all aloud, which is the equiv of standing in front of the ATM and counting on your fingers. How could they have overlooked something so basic? And how easy it would've been to learn at age 8: like reciting any rhyme. That was a big, fat dropped ball IMO, not trivial at all.

  7. If I were a six-year-old, I'd relish all this talk about blood and frogs; I grew up in a city, and it took until I was a teenager to get an understandable answer to "what's a locust?" and "what's a plague?" Lice was something "those kids" had, not us. Frogs are cute . And a 10-year-old would probably enjoy the thought of all those nasty Egyptians having boils...

  8. Right, Lenore. Especially because this generation has almost certainly witnessed more blood and gore on screens large and small than any previous generation. Shouldn't they then actually be inured to an arcane reference to boils or slaying of the firstborn?

  9. Hey Yam, thanks for your comment on my blog! If you're searching for the source that linked us, it was Lenore, who commented above, but I believe she posted it via twitter, and not her blog.

  10. Liz, I just reread your comment and your final question, "Must we infantilize everything?" harks back to the theories expounded by Neil Postman in his fascinating book The Disappearance of Childhood. Indeed, the lines between childhood and adulthood have become blurred: Seder has descended to preschool level, while Disney Studios now panders to the adult [read $$$] audience by adding in wink-wink references that go right past the kids. Sigh...

  11. I'm with you on this one. Keep up the good work!

  12. I have only fond memories of Pesach at Grandma's. I have visions of her cooking all day, making gefilte fish and matzoh ball soup -- foods we ate only this time of year. At home, my mother changed all the dishes, threw out the bread, opened the matzoh boxes, and made chocolate sponge cake every day.

    The seders were fun. The repetition was comforting; we all knew what was coming next. The Four Questions, the story of the prodigal son (which I didn't get then, and I certainly don't get now), the four cups of wine, and the seder plate. Memorable songs with tunes you could hum and words you could never forget. As kids we found the plagues more fascinating than scary; I've never met a kid who was traumatized by their recitation. We tried to imagine the exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and 40 years of wandering.