Wednesday, March 17, 2010

More than just the Afikoman...

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.
Albert Einstein

I have always loved learning and hated school. In some ways that makes me an odd teacher. But wether you love school or not, I imagine that everyone can agree that school is functioning at its worst when it is stifling student's innate curiosity and love of learning. That's why I get pretty frustrated every year around Pesach.

There is a central mitzva on the seder night, and it is "sippur yeztiat mitzrayim" - telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It is formulated as a cross-generational process in the Torah: "V'higad'ta - and you must tell your son on that day, saying: ba'avur zeh..." (Shmot 13:8)  Somewhere during the second Temple era, the Rabbis endorsed a Haggada, formalizing this mitzva with common text and customs for all. Perhaps they found that too many parents did not know how to engage their kids, or where uncomfortable engaging in this mitzva without some help. Perhaps there was no specific reason, and the haggada is just part of the overall Rabbinic process of formalization and standardization that the entire Oral Law went through. Whatever the reasoning, the Rabbis created a Seder - an orderly program to serve as the method for fulfilling the mitzva of sippur yeztiat mitzrayim. And that's how things went for centuries. Imagine, if you can,  how exciting and stimulating a seder would have been to kids in the days before formal education.

I contend that modern schooling has sucked some of the life out of this mitzva. For reasons beyond my ken, early Jewish education seems to universally feature the "model seder". There, students are taught to be prepared for every twist and turn that the seder has to offer. Not a single surprise is left to arouse their curiosity on the night of Passover. The following conversation at a seder can easily be imagined:

Adult: Now who knows why we wash without a bracha and then eat carpas?
Child: OH, I know. We learned that in school. That is to get kids to ask questions!
Adult: Good job! I sure am spending my tuition dollars well!

I hope the irony there is obvious.

As kids get older, we move from model seder to pre-programmed divrei Torah for kids to recite. Once again, parents are happy when their kids come with pre-packeged content. To be fair, some of the blame lies in the haggada itself, as (for example) it does pre-package four questions for kids to ask. But I see no reason for exacerbating the problem the way contemporary Jewish schools have. With the end of surprise comes the end of spontaneity.

The Rambam demands a more fluid approach to fullfil this mitzva properly. You can see the Rambam's formulation in Holchot Chametz U'Matza Chapter 7 if you go here, but I'll paraphrase the relevant parts. He explains that you must make changes that night, in order for the kids to notice and ask why this night is different, so that you can explain the answer. He suggests that you might, for example, give out nuts and treats before dinner. In other words even in the time of the Rambam, you could not rely on the haggada to create stimulating surprises to generate questions. A parent is required to use their initiative and creativity. So although schools in our day have made it harder for kids to erupt with spontaneous curiosity on Pesach night, this problem has been with us for a really long time.

Let's be honest, this is quite a challenge for parents. Let's observe a few of the problems:
1. People of many ages sit around the seder table. How do you keep them all interested and not kvetching about the late meal?
2. How do you top yourself year after year? Aren't the kids going to catch on to your shtick at a certain point?
3. Who has the time and/or ability to be that kind of creative in the middle of the whirlwind of career, Pesach prep and plain old regular life?
4. But: the actual mitzva from the Torah is a kind of inter-generational discussion of the Passover story. So we cannot afford to allow the night to become perfunctory ritual.

While we're being honest, let's admit that I "Kobayashi Maru"ed my way around this problem. Not everybody can be married to a brilliant Jewish educator like Dara, so I have a big advantage over most people. But I'm not the only one bothered by this problem. There is a Google document floating around as we speak being built by Wexner alumni which is essentially a brainstorm of ideas to solve this problem. There was also a list of resources on the internet from Lookjed that sort of addressed this need. There are some really clever ideas in our friend Jonathan Mishkin's book.

I'd like to briefly share a few of the different ideas that we have tried out over the years. You can find some of them in the resources above, but we came up with them ourselves. Honest! Basically, when the moment feels right to me and Dara, we spring some of these ideas on the family, and see what sort of tomfoolery ensues, and then direct the chaos into discussions of the Exodus story. Below is a Power Point style presentation with some of our basic ideas so far. 

Here's the thing: I'm going to set this presentation to allow anyone to add ideas to it! Please feel more than invited to contribute, and together we can build a great resource to swap ideas in a creative way!
The important thing is not to stop questioning.
Albert Einstein

P.S. Here are some materials that Dara sent me! Included are: questions for Jeopardy, Pesach bingo, (with pre-made cards at the end of the Power point below) instructions to make a paper fortune teller, (with a template in the Power Point) and even some Pesach jokes. Enjoy!


MNUnterberg said...

Here are some comments received from Facebook:

Abe Adler
...right after the seder begins...quickly have everyone switch seats representing the speed that everything turned around & how they had to leave in haste....
before yom tov have everyone write down a question/topic (not your typical questions) about Pesach & either havethem in a bowl where evryone picks one and has to answer or talk about the question or you can just have everyone pass their question to the person next to them and have them answer/discuss the topic.

MNUnterberg said...


Robin Craig
Well. . .you could invite someone else for whom it's new. I was invited to one (yeah, just one) Seder while I was at Mizrachi, and the kids loved explaining everything to me. It seemed to make them feel like great authorities, and see at least some of the evening with fresh eyes.

MNUnterberg said...

From: Sara Marx
To: ;
Sent: Monday, March 15, 2010 4:19 PM
Subject: New Resources for Pesach

New Resources for Pesach offers a new lesson plan that invites students to
engage personally with one or more sections of the Haggadah. After
researching and thinking creatively about the section, the student
will create an interpretation of one part of the Haggadah with words
or visual images.

Creating Personal Midrash on the Pesach Haggadah Lesson Plan

New Pesach Resources for 5770

Pesach Lessons from the Resource Library

Pesach Central for Students

We welcome feedback on any of these resources at You can also write to that address to sign up
for our teachers' e-letter.

Sara Marx
A Behrman House partner

Kalany said...

Thanks Michael,
you should check out the facebook group 'Great Seder Ideas for Kids' it's exactly what we talked about the other night.

MNUnterberg said...

From: Yitzchak Blau
To: Rabbi Binyamin Blau;

Michael raises a real issue:

1) I do not think that one can simultaneously have a seder for kids and adults. Fortunately, the adults, particularly if they are grandparents, enjoy the children's seder. Other options include switching to adults later in the evening or alternating nights (one of the few advantages of yom tov sheni).

2) I agree with the need for parents to put some thought ahead of time into novel games and questions.

3) That being said, we should recall that the power of ritual lies precisely in its repetition. No one complains that we light the same Chanukah candles or blow the same shofar each year. Of course, Hazal were more concerned about child participation and questions and answers during the seder but the point bears remembering nonetheless.