Parenting at Passover: How Do We Share this Story with Our Kids?

It’s tough being a parent on Passover. Our “seder plates,” so to speak, pile up quickly with obligations and responsibilities, the likes of which can be tricky to navigate as a family. Depending on levels of observance, we are the enforcers at home and at the seder, deputized to supervise all manners of eating, cooking, snacking, and even storytelling throughout the holiday. It’s a serious matzah ball, this Passover parenting enterprise, from the first glass of Manischewitz to the very last morsel of macaroon.

Let’s be honest: Even when it isn’t Passover, cooking for children isn’t easy. But add in some of the Passover restrictions and we’re faced with a colossal challenge. The anxiety begins when we take away the bagels and the pizza, the chicken nuggets and the pasta. But it really crescendos when we clean out the Honey Nut Cheerios and the Honey Bunches of Oats, the graham crackers and Goldfish. They cry! They complain! They pout! Our little creatures of habit don’t like such disruptions in their dietary routines.

But this is just the beginning! Feeding our children, fickle as they are, may get a little dicey on Passover, but it’s manageable. There is no mystery to avoiding bread or pasta or wheat or barley. There is no intellectual struggle in deciding how to serve cream cheese and jelly on matzah rather than a bagel. It just takes some discipline and good, old-fashioned elbow grease.

The same can’t be said with regards to that other massive parental obligation, the mitzvah (commandment) of telling the Passover story to our children. At first, it seems easy enough. Just get the kids to a seder, put them in their seats, hand them a Haggadah, and voila, our work is done. But when has any child ever sat through a seder from start to finish? It’s a Passover pipe dream, at best. In reality, we know that sometimes, kids + seder = boredom, bickering, and (many) bathroom breaks.

Yet our parental obligation to tell the story still stands. If our children are to learn it, they must hear it, and in order to hear it, they must want to listen. Thus, we are tasked with being creative and thoughtful and innovative in our approach to the seder, making it speak to our children in a language they can understand. Might that mean using props and costumes? Possibly. What about employing poetry and puppetry? Perhaps. How about stepping out of our comfort zone and feeling totally silly? Absolutely. Whatever the method, take a chance and have fun – for the sake of our children and theirs.

But when it comes to the Passover story, what is the story we actually want to tell? Especially with children present, how deeply do we descend into the narrative, and how strictly do we adhere to its framework? As parents, we have to think in advance and decide things like whether we should shelter our children from the bitter truths of the seder or lift the curtain. Is it enough to say that we were slaves, or must we, as one Haggadah states, “feel the lash and feel the hope that defeats its pain”?

Is there a happy medium between those goofy “bags of plagues” and the harsh reality that defines each grisly act? And with the objective of making the story accessible, is a puppet of the “death of the first born” really the best way to go? Is there merit in painting over the most explicit, the most graphic, and the most terrifying in order to make the story more palatable, or does the mitzvah lie in confronting the details, dreadfulness and all? Where do we draw the line between the faithful and the family-friendly telling of the story?

As parents, we can take great comfort in knowing that, in Passover as in life, there are far more questions than there are answers. The deeper we probe, the more we uncover. As we are taught, we begin the story with the youngest asking the four questions, because the ability to ask distinguishes the free person from the slave. In asking questions, we boldly exercise our precious gift of freedom and bravely stand up to those who would have kept us in slavery.

The ancient rabbis could have chosen any scholar, teacher, or leader to tell this story to our children, but instead they chose parents – us, even with our flaws and our deficits – to be an integral part of passing down this story. The rabbis must have known that sometimes the least perfect method is the most perfect solution – and so it continues today. These obligations are ours to protest and to cherish, year after year.

Accordingly, we get to sit near our kids at the seder table and tell this Passover tale. We feed them their first bites of matzah and say, “For the hundredth time, no pizza on Passover!” (Unless it’s matzah pizza, of course.) How much luckier can we get?

From our home to yours, a chag Pesach Sameach – happy Passover!

Rabbi Sara Y. Sapadin is a rabbi, mother, and vigorous spiritual seeker. She most recently served Temple Israel of the City of New York, where she focused on issues of social justice, Israel engagement, and revitalizing Jewish living for young families. She and her husband and their four children reside in New York City, where they are raising their dog to be Jewish.

Looking for a way to tell the Passover story to young children? Check out this kid-friendly version to read with your family this holiday.