Jessica Taylor Charland
The Jewish holidays have a magical quality of transporting us back in time. Back to our childhoods, and even further back to the days of our ancestors. I attribute this transportation to the enchantment of story. Passover is one of many holidays that come with a story—not a story about “them” long ago, but a story about “us” as a people. I once read that this story is told in the first-person plural so that we and our children learn to take it personally: We were slaves in Egypt, We crossed the desert, and We were set free. As a parent, I ask myself: how I can nurture my children to embrace the holidays?
I fondly remember as a child being responsible for the place cards, creating them by hand or on the computer, folding them so they’d stand proud on the plates and Haggadot I’d helped set out. We had a full house each year, the table spanning the dining room and living room of my suburban childhood home in Thornhill. As I got older, I was trusted with setting the table with wine glasses, putting the matzah in our matzah boxes, cutting up celery and pickles, and polishing Eliyahu’s silver cup.
I remember my younger sister helping to gather the items that adorned our seder plate—a beautiful ceramic heirloom handcrafted by our Bubby. My parents would help us remember what each item represented. We’d watch my mom make kugels and my dad roast the brisket.
In our early teens, my sister and I started helping to prepare the meal. Between rolling batches of matzah balls, my mom taught us how to perfectly whip egg whites into meringue, how to fold it in with the matzah farfel, how much cinnamon to add to the sweet kugel. Our responsibilities grew each year and we always looked forward to being part of the holiday preparation and the evening storytelling and feast.
On the first night of Pesach, family would arrive with platters of roasted veggies, gefilte fish, desserts, and bottles of wine and grape juice. We’d gather around the table, taking turns reading from the Haggadah, re-living our shared exodus from Egypt and the celebration of freedom. I remember being a shy young child practising the Manishtana, the four questions, to be sung during the seder. I was relieved when my sister and younger cousins were old enough to start singing with me. When we had all grown to adulthood, the youngest of each family unit would stand up and sing together, no matter their age.
In my later teens and early adulthood, I began attending the second night of seders with my now-husband’s family. Unlike my family, they no longer read the Haggadah cover to cover. Initiated by his older sister, they had started selecting passages from the Haggadah that were most meaningful to current events, along with news clippings and articles to share and discuss. Amidst telling the Passover story, we made connections to our own lives, to the continued oppression of people around the world, to modern day plagues and hardships, and to the meaning of freedom. I was intimidated at first, but came to look forward to these immersive conversations.
My favourite part of these seders was the childhood act of searching for the Afikomen. My father-in-law was the best at hiding the middle matzah, and we adult-children would run around in competition to be the first to find it, lifting cutlery organizers out of drawers, checking behind art frames hung on the wall. I learned you are never too old to be the youngest at a seder.
As a new parent, ready to host a seder of my own, I decided to adapt our family traditions to be more child-friendly. I had learned of a website, Haggadot.com, where I spent hours scrolling through images, passages, poems, and songs, to create my own Haggadah. At the seder, we collectively sang parody songs like “you need to wash your hands” (to the tune of the Beatles’ “I want to hold your hand”) during the Urchatz. We donned masks and headbands and acted out Moses pleading with Pharoah to let our people go. Each family had to bring something that represented one of the 10 plagues. I created an interactive seder that drew us into the story, transporting us across the sand as the sea parted. I hope that as my children grow, they too will have new ideas and help host the seder in their own way.
I struggle with fostering a strong Jewish identity within my children. This is partly because I have just started to rebuild my own. Growing up in a Jewish neighbourhood, I was surrounded by a normalization of Jewish practices. I took that for granted. When I moved away, I wasn’t immediately bothered by the lack of a Jewish community. Except for the holidays that brought me back home, I had left most of my Jewish identity behind. But raising kids in Burlington changed me. Our shul is a 20-minute drive away, matzah is nearly impossible to find in grocery stores, and we are outsiders around the mainstream Christian holidays. Motherhood made me feel an immense responsibility to return to my roots—to create a Jewish home.
Embracing Jewish culture offers me great comfort. It provides a place to feel grounded, a community to belong to, a shared ancestry and traditions, a guide to raising my children to be proud and outspoken Jewish people—to be mensches.
The holidays and their stories offer entry points to engage with my children as we build our Jewish identity together. Stories are enchanting and connect us to something bigger than ourselves. As a grateful PJ Library subscriber, my children and I enjoy snuggling up and reading the books that come in the mail each month. The ones about the holidays are favourites, offering new ideas for ways to celebrate, and to talk about traditions from around the world.
Passover is about our exodus from slavery, our collective flight and freedom. From this story, we can learn to seize opportunity when it arises—opportunity to stand up to oppressors, opportunity to flee harmful situations, opportunity to band together, and most importantly to always have hope. As my children get older, I hope to have them take on the roles and conversations I had growing up, so that they may internalize the messages of these stories, using them to guide their Jewish life.
How to make new seder traditions
Make your own haggadah
There are thousands of pre-made ideas, themes, images, prayers, songs, and more at haggadot.com. You can host a colouring book seder, a Harry Potter seder, a 10-minute seder. It’s easy to select pages from different templates, add them to your own 13-part booklet, edit them if you wish, and print copies for your guests!
opportunities for sing-alongs around the table:
Alongside traditional favourites like Dayenu, my Haggadah included parody songs such as “You need to wash your hands” to the tune of the Beatles “I want to hold your hand” and “Take us out of Egypt” to the tune of “Take me out to the ball game”. Songs break up the reading and add a smile to your exodus celebration!
Create character masks and finger puppets
I found free Moses and Pharoah mask printables on Pinterest, printed them on cardstock and cut out eye holes. These were used by guests who took on the character roles during the Maggid portion of the seder, shouting in first person “Let my people go!” I also found free plague printables on a mommy blog.
After cutting out the 10 shapes, I glued them to a them to a piece of cardstock for sturdiness, and then to another piece of cardstock rolled into a tube the size of my finger. These were worn by the kids around the table who read out parts of the story where the plagues were sent upon the Egyptians: “Darkness: Hey! Who turned out the lights, I can’t see.”
Include interactive Q&A around the table
Asking questions is an integral part to the seder. I included trivia Q&A cards under everyone’s plates at the table. One person had Question #5 (Where does the word Afikomem come from?), and someone on the other side of the table had Answer #5 (It comes from the Greek word epikomen which means “that which comes after” or “dessert”). Cues were added to my Haggadah to mark an opportune time to ask such questions! This got everyone talking!
Make it an interactive seder
Adapting our seder to be more interactive meant that everyone spoke, everyone listened, everyone sang, and everyone was entertained. The magic of the holiday is in the gathering of family and friends and telling the story, not in static traditions of the past. Don’t be afraid to make the seder your own, and to allow your children to help make decisions that could lead to new and meaningful holiday traditions.