Is Passover too Scary for My Kids?

Is Passover too Scary for My Kids?

When Catholic-born Cassandra Barry started dating her Jewish husband, she was hesitant to attend her first Jewish religious event, a Passover seder with his family. But once she finally attended his family seder, she discovered that she greatly enjoyed her boyfriend’s extended family’s riotous discussions, his colorful/difficult relatives, and the fact that Judaism as a religion seemed so much more all-around fun than Catholicism.

So when their first child, a boy named Laszlo, was old enough, Cassandra enrolled him in a Jewish pre-school. And she liked the pre-school very much…until the week before Passover when Lazslo came home with stories about the Israelite slaves being deprived of food and sleep and he started complaining to his parents about having frogs in his bed.

Cassandra was deeply disturbed.

In her article for the Huffington Post entitled What I’m not Telling My Son About Passover, Cassandra writes:
…I realized for the first time that the story of Passover through the eyes of a toddler is kind of surreal and pretty messed up. For starters, the Jewish people were slaves under a mean Pharaoh. Then there’s the part about a wrathful God unleashing ten plagues which included water turning to blood, lice, flies and disease for humans and animals. Also, there’s the killing of children….

As much as I love celebrating the Jewish holidays with my friends or with Joel’s family, I think I’m going to have to leave the biblical stories out of it as much as possible for now. Even though there IS something really cute about a three year old singing “Let my people go.” But I wouldn’t tell Laszlo a horror story or let him see a scary movie, and some of these biblical stories are even scarier…”

I was pretty stunned by Cassandra’s condemnation of teaching children about the story of Passover because it’s just too scary.

Like Cassandra, I also don’t let my 4-year-old son, Yoel, hear horror stories or see scary movies, but I do want him to know all the truly scary details of the story of Passover.

So what’s the difference between us JewishMOMs and Cassandra Barry? Why do we insist on teaching our children this upsetting story, enthusiastically going over the details again and again in the weeks leading up to Passover, while Cassandra Barry understandably prefers to fill her son’s head with positive messages from Franklin and Dora and Curious George?

About a decade ago I attended the first bris of my life for the son of a friend, and it was an experience I will never forget. It was an intensely spiritual crowd, and even the location itself was intensely spiritual–a historic Sephardic yeshiva in the Old City. But the most intense moments of a very intense event, for me, were when the mohel cut the baby’s foreskin and the baby began to scream. And when the father screamed out the words “Blessed are You, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with the commandment to bring him into the covenant of Avraham our Father.”

And hearing that combination of screams was one of the most intense religious experiences of my life.

It was so clear to me at that moment.

There is such an abundance of joy and light in this Jewish life. But the covenant of Avraham Avinu, the ancient covenant that binds every single Jew, is a covenant drenched in pain and self-sacrifice….Because we have held tight to this God-given covenant throughout the darkest chapters of Jewish history: the 210 years of brutal slavery in Egypt, and the savage Roman Occupation, and the murderous Crusades and the bloody Inquisition and the inhuman Pogroms and the genocidal Shoah and the never-ending grief of the Israeli Wars and terror attacks…

Hashem could have commanded us to wait until the age of 13 to expose that baby to the pain of circumcision. He could have said, “Until 13, only Franklin and Dora and Curious George. Only Smiley Faces and snuggly hugs from mommy and daddy.”

But He decided, in His infinite wisdom, that at 8-days-old, as early as possible in terms of safety, a Jewish child needs feel that being a Jew isn’t just about having fun.

Being a Jew is about serving Hashem in ways that place you across the river from the rest of humanity, just like Avraham Avinu. And sometimes that’s the source of joy and light. But sometimes that’s scary. And sometimes that’s painful.

And that mixture of joy and scary and light and pain is the very essence of being a Jew.

And that’s why I’m proud to teach my son and all of my children the story of Passover. Just like my parents taught me and their parents taught them, and their parents taught them, before them.

Image courtesy of Flickr.com user Center for Jewish History, NYC

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16 comments

  1. GinBerlin

    How privileged is this woman! I live in a world with police guarding my children’s school and our religious sites and places of worship. A world where the thought of my children (and myself) being gunned down at drop off is one country over.
    Welcome to the world of being Jewish: at least the Pesach story has a happy ending. There’s a difference between not allowing a movie (my kids can’t see Moses, Prince of Egypt- the murder of the male children is too scarey) and between having an age appropriate seder.

  2. the first comment is effective, to clarify the truth.
    in addition, I would say:
    first of all, the children are not Jewish by Torah standards, but to me, it seems anti-semetic (possibly unconscious) to deny her children the start reality of her husband’s Jewish heritage.

  3. She wrote for HuffPo about family matters– don’t take it seriously. HuffPo just got how many million Jews to come read that article? This was done for clicks.

    Think of the ditzes on The View gabbing– read this with one of their voices and you will get that I mean.

  4. I didn’t read her entire article, but one thing I think that might be being overlooked is that all parents temper things for their kids ears according to age and understanding. There is nothing wrong with that and in fact it’s a very good thing. I wouldn’t let my kids watch a horror movie, no matter how accurate, anymore than I would encourage them to witness and murder in real life.

    There is a very good way to teach the story little by little to children in order for them to understand. If they are scared by the facts (saying having nightmares about water turning to blood or the first born son being killed) than it is right to tune down how we discuss these matters until they reach a place that they can have better understanding and less fear.

    I don’t ever believe in withholding truth from children. But I always think it’s healthy to temper it to the age and understanding of each child. Which is why at many a seder table there are “fun” things like plastic frogs to teach about the plagues instead of say, pictures of dead babies (which would be more realistic.)

    • I agree. School and my husband and I taught my kids the story of Pesach but my four-year-old held her ears during the plagues portion of the seder. It was really too traumatic for her. Whenever we would go over the Pesach story she insisted on skipping the makot. She’s four–it was too scary for her.

      • JewishMom

        I hear what you two are saying, it’s important to tone down the story for young ears. That’s an important point. What I found really extreme about this article is that Cassandra Barry was upset that the preschool teachers had told her son that the Israelite slaves had been deprived of naptime and snack, in order to hint at the Egyptian’s cruelty. And even THIS she thought was too much. That, I think, is going overboard.

        • I think it’s going overboard too, but I also think as the mother it’s her choice. Parents are in charge of when their kids should learn lessons, so I gotta respect that, even if I wouldn’t make that choice.

          I don’t, however, understand why she made it into an article. ???

  5. Tamar Miller

    poignantly written Jenny. of course its the mothers choice to parent how she wills. overall, what I understand from Jenny is that in the end this mother who is not Jewish is incapable of handing down to her son what it means to be Jewish. there is something so intrinsic in a Jewish mother that perhaps wouldn’t blink or be so scrutinating as this mother was about the story of Pesach. this is our heritage, our history as a people, that we are commanded to remember and tell over to our children. she cannot possibly understand it until she is part of our nation. and in essence we are handing over to our children a rich mesora (tradition) of what it means to be Jewish and part of a nation. instead of meaningless Dora or Curious George. what kind of message do we want to send to our children? and its when you start young with your children is when these stories become part of them. the earlier the better – age appropriate of course.

  6. Cassandra Barry

    For the record, I am NOT upset that his preschool told a softened version of the story of Passover. I think they did the right thing. I’m happy with the way the teachers at his preschool talk to the kids. I’m just not ready, personally, to tell him about it. He was fine with it: It’s not like he was scarred or anything. For me (as someone who did not grow up Jewish), I’m grateful to be able to expose him to teachers who know more about Judaism than I do and are trained in delicately talking to 3 year olds about this stuff.

  7. What and when do you tell your children about the Shoah? I wasn’t pleased when our mostly wonderful religious school told a Holocaust-related story to my child’s kindergarten class. It wasn’t a graphic story but I have no intention of introducing the topic anytime soon, and we have elderly survivors in our family.

    I understand and appreciate the sentiment behind this JewishMom post but am conflicted myself about introducing the burdens of Jewishness to young children, and am not sure I agree that Judaism need be defined by otherness at this point.

    Peace and good health to all of you.

    • Totally agree. My son came home from a playdate a few days ago and said that the other kid told him the story of the Holocaust and I felt like my heart fell out of my body. I, too, had no intention of bringing this up yet – and we too have survivors in the immediate family. I remember learning about the Holocaust as a little girl – our second grade class even put on a Yom HaShoah play for the whole school and looking back on that, I feel that that is so not okay. As an adult, I still have nightmares about the pictures we were shown when we were getting ready for that play. So when my son came home from this playdate, I sent his teacher an email asking what they were planning on teaching about Yom HaShoah because now that it’s been introduced, I have to be prepared to discuss it.

  8. Being Jewish is like being adopted. It’s best to find out what it means so early that it’s like you always knew. That softens the necessary pain of knowing it. I’m for Truth, told gently.

  9. my children enjoy the story of the makot. I think the story of Egyptian cruelty, esp. to children, makes a great backdrop for really enjoying the makot–children understand and enjoy the measure for measure justice of that. (Hashem is not wrathful–He is just, and that is the greatest mercy you can have.) I would point out that goyish children should not be similarly equipped to enjoy this story of the Jewish Nation’s birth–Cassandra Barry’s children included.

  10. Our exodus from Egypt is real and was one of the greatest acts of love our Creator did for us. Children love stories that really happened. And particularly when there is a happy ending. The problem is really in the education. Of course the teachers are doing the best they can but in a classroom full of children. There are going to be some personalities that need a little more explaining in possibly a different way. I think thats where the parents responsibility comes in. Not to avoid the teaching all together. But to mold it to that child’s needs.

    I also believe that when you send your child to school. Unless you ask for lesson plans and curiculum in August. Then why would teaching the Passover story around the time of that Holiday even be a surprise?????

    And on another note. I’m curious to know where Cassandra stands on Halloween. I know a lot of practicing Catholics who stay as far away as possible. But then there are some who think its fun. That’s a very scary time of year! But celebrated with relish. And that’s a scary that G-D doesn’t seem to have any central role in … I can imagine that makes a child feel very insecure.

  11. I can’t say I am particularly proud of this but… my little kids aged 2 and 4 LOVE scary stories. The scarier the better. They are constantly demanding us to come up with something scary to keep them entertained. Somehow being able to confront terror in a safe environment is important to them. Of course I would much rather they get their “scary fix” from their parents than from TV, books or movies. Anyway, Pesach has been a boon to us this year because they can’t get enough of hearing the story of the makkos and the bad Paro. Also as much as possible I try and indulge the need for scary stories with stories that are “scary” but still have an important message like the one with Rabbi Akiva travelling with the rooster, donkey and candle.

    As other commenters have mentioned there is no lack of scary stories in our history.

  12. I remember so clearly the first time my oldest son, then four, told me the story of Cain and Abel that he had learned at Gan. At first I was shocked, upset and felt my home had been violated: then I realized that Torah provides loads of excitement, drama, suspense and mystery that many children crave, and how fortunate was I that my sons natural boyish pull towards those things could be satiated in holiness…. Baruch Hashem!!! For pesach, I bought the best illustrated haggadot I could find and my children, now older, still never tire of them: G-d is their Hero!!!!!

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