Thursday, April 5th, 2012
For a Jewish kid, there’s generally no greater highlight of the religious calendar than Hanukkah, with its abundance of presents, gooey jelly donuts, greasy latkes, and… did I mention the presents? But when it comes to truly getting into the meaning of a holiday, embracing it beyond the material and gastronomical, there’s no better time of the year than Passover. With its symbolic foods–bitter herbs for slavery, greens for springtime–and its central story of redemption and justice, the holiday’s meaning is easy to grasp. Catchy songs and kid-focused seder rituals certainly help, too.
At its core, Passover is about storytelling; we are all supposed to feel as if we personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt. My older daughter is at the age where she is discovering and grappling with the Passover story, focusing on different details each time we read or talk about it, and asking pointed questions about it. Why was Pharaoh so mean? Were the Ten Plagues fair? For a 5-year-old, questions of justice–of evil being punished (but not overly punished) and good people being rewarded–are particularly salient. I had to laugh when, in a moment of frustration, she called someone a “Pharaoh” for some perceived slight against her.
She’s also discovering what it means to tell a story from different vantage points or angles. One of the books we’ve been reading is More Than Matzah: A Passover Feast of Fun, Facts, and Activities, which is a detailed (and, be forewarned, relatively lengthy for her age) retelling of the Exodus narrative. It sticks to a narrative, just-the-facts style that hews closely to the biblical tale. It’s geared toward an older kid than my daughter, but she’s still fascinated by the level of detail it offers about the story, and is looking forward to doing some of the Passover crafts it features.
Another favorite is A Little Girl Named Miriam, which confines itself to just a slice of the action, focusing on Moses’ older sister. It sweetly embellishes the Biblical tale, bringing in rabbinic commentary and the author’s own imagination to credit “little Miriam,” as my daughter invariably calls her, as the central hero in moving the early part of the narrative forward. It’s the perfect story for a quiet little girl with a keen sense of right and wrong, with the refrain “…little Miriam spoke up…” summing up each of the young heroine’s shining moments.
The books have sparked in our family some great discussions on why the characters look different in each retelling and why some of the details are different. The stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we tell about ourselves, matter, and that’s one reason the Haggadah–the book we use at the seder table to guide our telling of the Passover story–is the most translated and re-interpreted Jewish liturgical book. If each of us is to feel as if we were personally redeemed from slavery, then what that redemption looks like is bound to be different for each of us. My daughter’s got her own ideas, and her own favorite images from her books. It’s been a fun and meaningful lesson to explore together.
Wishing everyone a holiday filled with great stories and great joy.
Image: Passover Seder Plate via Shutterstock