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PEOPLE : Food for Thought : In preparing for the Passover meal, children learn about their heritage and its relevance to their lives.

April 02, 1993|RUTH STROUD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ruth Stroud is a Culver City writer

"In every generation, let each man look on himself as if he came forth from Egypt." --From the Passover Haggada

In Jewish households throughout the world on Monday evening, the first night of the eight-day holiday of Passover, parents and grandparents will tell their children and grandchildren the story of their ancestors' liberation from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.

With wine, song, tables laden with traditional foods, a dramatic story of how good triumphs over evil and, finally, a hide-and-seek hunt for an elusive piece of matzo (flat, unleavened bread), the elders hope that the little ones will remain awake and, perhaps, even learn something of their heritage.

There are a lot of reasons for children to remain interested during the Seder, the festive Passover meal designed at least in part to pique their curiosity. They get to ask questions, eat unusual foods, show off their knowledge of Jewish lore and traditions and keep watch for the Prophet Elijah, who is said to visit every Seder table where a cup of wine has been set out for him.

At Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, children in kindergarten through ninth grade begin preparing weeks ahead for their model Seders.

In Janine Jacoby's kindergarten class, the children create their own Haggadot, the slender books that tell the Exodus story. Since most of the children cannot yet read, the pages are filled with pictures and other clues about what to do at the Seder.

"The Seder is a teacher's dream lesson plan," observed Jacoby. "It employs all the senses. There are stories, games, songs, food and show-and-tell."

To make Passover real for very small children, she has attempted to incorporate their experiences and inject an element of play into activities. The kindergartners have tried to make bricks out of sand and straw in the sandbox as the Jews were forced to do in Egypt. The class plans to make matzo and bake it in an imaginary desert as the fleeing slaves did long ago.

During a classroom discussion last week, they talked about maror , the bitter herbs made with horseradish, that are served at the Seder.

"We tasted maror . It was bitter, wasn't it?" Jacoby asked. "Why do we eat something that isn't good?"

"Because it hurted a lot to be a slave," said one child.

The children reflected about what Passover was like in their own homes.

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"Who hides the afikoman in your house?" the teacher asked, referring to the piece of matzo hidden during the Seder and usually recovered by a child and exchanged for a prize. According to tradition, the Seder cannot end until the afikoman is returned.

"My dad hides it. Me and my brother find it," said another child.

The afikoman hunt is a high point for many older children as well, although many think more seriously about Passover's meaning and its relevance to their lives.

After listening to his ninth-grade class reminisce about Passovers past, Rabbi Jan Goldstein posed a question that elicited a deluge of emotion.

What do the allegations of rapes at Lakewood High School (in which teen-age boys were accused of committing rape and other sex crimes against girls) and the beatings of Rodney G. King and Reginald Denny have to do with the values of Passover, he asked.

"Rape is even worse than being a slave," Jackie Parness said. "You can't take back rape."

"Without evil, there can't be good," Melissa Karpel said. "Without bondage, there can't be freedom."

"Passover," the rabbi summed up, "tells the story of what was the ultimate degradation of a people. We need to affirm the freedom of people, to affirm their dignity."

The students' Jewish education isn't intended to separate them from the world around them, said Luisa Latham, assistant principal and director of the school's Judaic program.

"They have to see how their identity is congruent with what is going on with the world," she said.

Fourth-graders have been learning about Israel and incorporated some Israeli songs and dances into their Seder on Tuesday. Until the children are a little older, their Seders tend to be fairly traditional in style, Latham said. Older children may include some unusual touches and ceremonies from other lands--or their own.

Fifth-graders at the school are trying to correlate their studies of slavery during colonial times with the Israelites' plight in Egypt. At the model Seder earlier this week, the children told the story of the Exodus as if they themselves were slaves, incorporating black spirituals and quotations from people prominent in the human rights struggle of African-Americans.

Sixth-graders put together a Moroccan-style Seder, complete with authentic foods and traditions of Moroccan Jews. Eighth-graders, who are studying kibbutzim, the Israeli collective farms, put on a kibbutz-style Seder at which they gave their parents their "ethical wills" documenting the values they hope to pass on to their own children. Since a major purpose of the Seder is to relate to a new generation stories of long ago, the children are reversing the generational direction for the moment, said teacher Alan Rosenberg.

"Live life color-blind," wrote Dana Bean, the child of South African-born parents. "But do not be blind to the prejudice shown in others' eyes."

Although the words and thoughts of the children reflect the more serious side of Passover, this is still a holiday that "kind of brings out the kid in you," said ninth-grader Oren Shepher. "Passover's like a Band-Aid. When it comes, everything is OK."

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