Transforming Tradition: Reflections on Passover, Family, and Learning Together

Transforming Tradition: Reflections on Passover, Family, and Learning Together
Robin Feuchtwang

A Feast for the Senses

Of all our beautiful Jewish celebrations, Passover is my favorite holiday by a long shot. Because the Sedarim (Seders) are orchestrated in much the same way Hausner’s amazing teacher Atara facilitates her Jewish Studies classes, all participants’ senses are engaged. The holiday creates embodied, visceral, forever memories: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, and the togetherness manifest a powerful impression. The Haggadah inspires questions and discussion in much the same way Hausner’s talented teacher Aviv engages his students in Talmudic and Socratic methods of interacting with text. This always drew me in to pay close attention, to stir up my curiosity, and to appreciate this strange and wonderful night that was so different from all the others in the year.

Home as Temple

Because the main rituals of Passover are performed at home, rabbinical commentary suggests that Pesach transforms our home into a temple, our table into an altar, and we become the priests presiding over the rituals. Whether or not that lofty aim was achieved at past Sedarim that I attended, what was always achieved was the togetherness of family and a sense of incredible belonging. My early memories are of warm, festive gatherings where I was so happy, surrounded by adoring grandparents, kibbitzing with my cousins, anticipating the delicious meal, and deeply feeling the uniqueness of these two nights of the year. I can still hear the authoritative voice of my great uncle leading the Seder and the Lithuanian accent that my grandfather brought to the songs as we recounted, as equals around the table, our people’s epic origin tale. I loved the “mini” Seder plates that my grandmother arranged for each guest, the gorgeous tableware that my grandmothers and mother would set out, the way we dressed and lit up the rooms, and the bustle of three generations of women masterfully preparing food in the kitchen and proudly serving it to the table. All these elements united to create a transformative, defining, magnificent experience for me as a child. 

From Guest to Host

As an adult, I was drawn to explore the holiday more deeply, its history, purpose, and details. Working in Jewish communal service over the last 3 decades allowed me to study with some of our country’s most scholarly, imaginative, and talented Rabbis and educators. Topics ranged, but many focused on Pesach themes. From every class, lesson, or discussion, I always took copious notes. I always kept the handouts. I bought books. I purchased Haggadot. I couldn’t get enough of it!  

And at the same time, I evolved from being a guest at my family’s Seders to being a host. It is one thing to study and learn about Passover, but it is quite another to be the facilitator of a Seder—and to do it well. Over the years I have struggled with imbuing my Sedarim with much of my acquired knowledge, to make the experience engaging, more interesting, and to better hold participants’ attention on the ritual more than on the matzo balls in my husband’s upcoming chicken soup. Even more, I want my children to love the holiday as much as I do. 

Lessons in Engagement

All of that is much more easily dreamed than actualized. To cultivate their investment, I try to get my children to help prepare the meal with me. Not so easy, as the kids pull the “homework card”, or honestly don’t have the time. When it comes to the flow and flavor of the Seder, I have often been too controlling to share the process with others and my leadership becomes far too didactic. Guests’ eyes would roll, my husband would shoot looks at me across the table, or simply suggest we “move on”, and no one felt any stake in the evening but me.

As always, Jewish wisdom comes to the rescue! Right there in the Haggadah is a guide for differentiated learning. The Four Children present four archetypes of learners and how to teach to their particular needs. At my Seder table are young and old, Jewish and non-Jewish, interested and disinterested, and those pining away until dinner. How can each of these be considered in my plans? Some of the strategies I use include putting out appetizers all around the table: pickles, carrots, and olives for guests to nosh on before we make it to the meal. When my children were younger, I asked them to write Passover jokes to share at the table—they were so cute that I saved them and make my grown kids tell the same jokes every year.  I collected many sets of “plagues” and lots and lots of frogs, (plastic, mechanical, and of the stuffed animal variety). My kids help decorate the table with these cute additions. When printing my own Haggadah, I write it with the range of guests in mind. Fun illustrations, pauses for funny word scrambles or riddles, and added commentary and questions peppered in that may relate to timely events for the adults and older kids to discuss during the Seder. Does it always manifest in rousing discussion? No. But each year I try to find a new, improved way to engage my guests. 


Two Haggadot I made in the past


Wisdom from Tradition: Learning and Evolving as a Host

In Pirke Avot, (a collection of wisdom from our ancient sages), Rabbi Ben Zoma asks, “Who is wise?” and he answers, “the one who learns from others”. This year before Passover arrives, I will send each of our participants a question or two, tailored to their age and interests, and ask them to share at the Seder any reflections, further questions, or learning they may have prepared. I want to hear from them! Some years have had themes. One year it was the history of the Haggadah, and my daughter and I unfurled a huge roll of butcher paper on which we had drawn the stages of the development of the Haggadah through the millennia. Another year focused on “Who are these Rabbis mentioned in the Haggadah?” I placed funny “baseball cards” with silly illustrations of each of the Rabbis on the front side, and very brief biographies on the backside for my guests to read and enjoy.  

“Rabbi Baseball Cards”

Rabbi "baseball cards"


Rabbi baseball cards

Rabbi "baseball cards"

Continuing the Journey: A Work in Progress

Over my five years at Hausner, I have assisted and learned from many teachers, across almost every grade, in both general and Jewish studies. This year I am on the amazing 1st grade team with Stacy and Amy at the lead. Every one of these special teachers has modeled exceptional skills in engaging students: stoking curiosity, cultivating their confidence to speak up and share, and respecting their contributions and thoughts. Because of their example, the way that I facilitate the Seder, and thus the experience had by my family and other guests, has improved. Rather than lecturing (which I have been oh so guilty of), I’m doing more to plant opportunities for thoughtful discussion. I hope that this year I will succeed in generating just a bit more interest, just a bit more fun, and just a bit more love of the experience among all of those gathered at my table. It is always a work in progress!


Passover jokes

Passover jokes my daughter wrote when she was eight years old



Passover puppets

Passover puppets


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