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Turn on your kids to the holidays
April 14th, 2008
It started innocently enough, a nice mother-daughter conversation on the way home from the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center.
“Look at the sparkly Christmas lights on those houses.”
“Yes, I answered, they are pretty to look at aren’t they?” I answered.
Sadly, I had a feeling this was coming. In the moment, I tried to find a suitable response.
“It is nice to look at the pretty lights, but we don’t have Christmas lights because we don’t celebrate Christmas. We’re Jewish, we get to celebrate other holidays.”
“I don’t want other holidays and I don’t want to be Jewish.”
Wow. I’ll admit that one hurt a bit. It was a sore moment, but one for which I was prepared, having spent years coaching other parents on how to react to similar conversations. This was my moment, my chance to introduce the beauty of Judaism to an eager, almost 4-year-old.
In the car that day, I started talking holidays. Chanukah was the first one that we covered because it was an easy comparison for a young mind. We talked about lighting the menorah, spinning the dreidel and making latkes — all things that my daughter was looking forward to for Chanukah.
In terms of hopefully instilling a love of Judaism, my minivan conversation was just the beginning. Allowing a child, one of any age, to see the merits of being Jewish is a process that we need to reinforce throughout their life.
There are many excellent ways to do this including going to synagogue, reading Jewish books, sending your child to Jewish preschools and camps, and modeling a Jewish life. Another great way to do this is through creatively looking at and celebrating Jewish holidays throughout the year.
‘Sanctification of time’
In her book, “How to be a Jewish Parent,” Anita Diamant explains, “The Jewish sanctification of time — through blessings and holidays — is a call to live in the present, to open our eyes, to give thanks, to be here now.”
She continues, “This is a special gift to parents watching their children change from week to week, milestone to milestone. The Jewish calendar is full of ways to stay in touch with and to teach this ‘mindfulness of the moment,’ this sense of the holiness of time.”
So how can we sanctify time and transmit joy of Judaism through holidays? First, as parents we can understand the meaning and traditions behind the holidays and then find ways to adapt them in our home.
Passover, which begins April 19, holds many examples of a holiday that can be interpreted creatively for kids.
In fact, one of the reasons that we are commanded to observe Passover and have a seder is to teach the story to our children so that they will know what it was like to go free from Egypt.
Additionally, Pesach helps us appreciate new life, nature, family time, new foods, spring cleaning and time to relax and appreciate freedom and the many choices we have in life.
One of the beauties of celebrating Passover with children is that it lends itself to rituals even before the holiday officially begins.
Somehow, the chametz (leaven) has to get out of our homes. The best way to do this is to clean everything. Not just for the sake of removing the leaven, but also so that we are prepared for the spring rebirth and renewal.
Cleaning is something children know, but Passover cleaning can be different. This is a chance to look at toys that are broken and can be donated or discarded. Books that are torn or for which they have outgrown and papers that haven’t been sorted in months can be removed as well.
Cleaning for Passover gives us the opportunity to get rid of the extra “stuff” that fills our homes. After the cleaning, give your child a feather and a flashlight which includes them in the ritual search for chametz and makes it into one huge game of hide-and-seek.
For some, Passover seders are fodder for their favorite memories; for others, they can be fuel for boredom. Finding ways to make the seder interesting for children ensures that their experience is positive.
Ways to make it exciting include puppet shows where the children take time to tell the story, and making your own children’s haggadah. Another trick is to pull a bag of plagues out during the seder. Plastic frogs, bouncing balls (for hail) and assorted wild beasts become all part of the fun for both children and adults.
You can also use pictures to color for younger children and word searches or crossword puzzles for other children. I’ve even seen Passover “Mad Libs” that allow everyone at the table to fill in one word and then get to hear the whole crazy story.
Another place for fun in the seder is the search for the afikomen. Traditionally, children find the afikomen and the leader of the seder has to “buy it back” so that all present can eat of it before concluding the seder.
“Buying it back” can be interpreted in many different ways. Passover chocolate bars, stickers, stuffed animals and small toys are some suggestions for an alternative to money. Or, if money is the custom in your family, why not get special coins or bills?
I can still recall that my Papa used to give us $2 bills for the afikomen. Every year he went to the bank before Passover to get these special dollars. Because they were different, it made receiving them exciting and we tended to save rather than spend them.
After the seder, there are still other ways to connect children with the holiday. We are taught to avoid leavened products for the entirety of the festival. For many children, this can be torture. It means no bagels, pizza, cheerios and hamburger buns.
This year, why not make it a game? Instead of viewing it as things they can’t have, why not list new foods that they can have. Have them make a list of all the foods they want to try during the week.
Hang the list in the kitchen on a calendar or colored piece of paper and have them cross off the foods as they eat them. The Internet and children’s holiday cookbooks offer many simple suggestions.
With all of these family projects, the essential element is celebrating the holiday’s specialness. Passover is just one example; each holiday has its particular food, dress, ritual and tradition that can be related to children.
The important process is to find new and interesting ways to bring our children into our ancient Jewish customs so that they want to love them as their own.
This gives them ownership, lasting bonds and memories that will stay with them forever. The combination of all of these will pave the way for a positive relationship to Judaism.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers, 1:1) teaches that Moses received the Torah from Sinai. From there it went to Joshua, to the elders, the prophets, and finally to all Israel. Our challenge now is to keep passing it to the children.
Rabbi Shari Shamah is the Jewish family specialist at the Harry & Rose Samson Family JCC. She is also a mother of two young children.