(March 4, 2012 / JNS)
Three times in the book of Exodus and once in Deuteronomy, we are commanded to tell the master narrative of our people to our children. Sometimes it is because children ask, and we have a responsibility as bearers of a legacy to answer. Sometimes children do not ask, and we have to stimulate their curiosity by becoming wonderful storytellers. Storytellers need to know their stories to tell them well. They need a terrific script and a pinch of creativity. Most of all, they need to feel inspired. It is impossible to tell a great story if it fails to move the storyteller first.
The rabbis of the Talmud wondered why four verses were necessary to communicate the obligation at Passover to retell the tale of the Exodus. They concluded that these four verses must represent four different kinds of children, offering an educational scale of learning styles or personalities who each must hear the story in his or her own way. One size fits all rarely fits anyone properly. Not only do we have to know the story well to tell it; we also need to know our audience well to make sure they hear it.
The best stories are fun to tell and fun to hear. They incorporate all our senses. They offer a range of emotional responses from laughter to tears, and good stories have staying power. They continue to inform our values long after they are shared. The Exodus story can be all of that. But most often, it is none of that. It is told in a tepid and incoherent way, read from a poor English translation without color or charm. It is the weak content warm-up to most family meals, even though it is one of the most observed rituals among American Jews.
It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old. Everyone appreciates a well-told story, so this year ask yourself: am I doing a good job in the chain of tradition at telling the exodus story? Is my Seder fun? Will it be memorable for everyone around the table? If the answer is “not really,” here are a few ways to fulfill the biblical commandment to tell the story, and the Disney way to make it stick.
Brush Up on the Details: No actor reads his lines the night of the musical. Don’t just dust off recipes. Take out a haggadah a few weeks before Passover and read it through. You might want to assign parts to your guests and ask them to do something creative with it. Reading Exodus 1-15 never hurts either.
Use props: Great storytellers use props because objects themselves are powerful storytellers. Find objects in your home that tell your family’s Jewish story and put them on the table. Or have every guest bring an object that tells his or her family story.
Decorate the Room: You do it for birthday parties. Why not for Passover? Why should anyone sit in a dining room in suburbia when they could be in downtown ancient Cairo? Try costumes. We even had our kids write and read ancient weather reports. Chances are it’s hot and sunny.
Sing the story with show tunes or ask the kids to prepare a rap song. Just go online and you’ll find loads of lyrics. Here are a few of my top ten:
Sung to the tune of “These are a Few of My Favorite Things”
Cleaning and cooking and so many dishes
Out with the hametz, no pasta, no knishes
Fish that’s gefillted, horseradish that stings
These are a few of our Passover things.
Sung to the tune of “Maria”:
I just saw the prophet Elijah.
And suddenly that name
Will never sound the same to me.
Sung to the tune of “Just a Spoon Full of Sugar”
Just a tad of haroset helps the bitter herbs
The bitter herbs go down, the bitter herbs go down.
Just a tad of Charoset helps the bitter herbs
In the most disguising way.
These are a few of my favorite things to help make Passover a living history lesson and a memorable evening each year. We are a people with no word for history, only memory. We are memory-makers. That is an awe-inspiring responsibility. Let’s do it well on the most important night of our story telling year.
Dr. Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her forthcoming book is Happy Endings: The Fine Art of Dying Well (Simon and Schuster).