Sharon Marson loves questions.
"I love where they bring you and how they can really open up your thinking to things," said Marson, schoolwide enrichment coordinator at the Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. (The school is more commonly known as SAR.)
"We think of creative thinkers as people who are simply gifted, and it is a component. But it’s also a skill," she said, "and we can be trained in the skill."
For her new book, "More Than Four Questions: Inviting Children’s Voices to the Seder," Marson took questions she had compiled from students and referred them to small groups of youngsters for their reactions and answers. The whole process took six years.
Several of the children with whom she worked were from Teaneck; she worked with most of them toward the beginning of her work on the book.
Addressing issues from "Why do we have a seder?" to "What does it really mean to be free?" the children – ranging in age from 5 to 16 – gave serious thought to each answer, often providing "deep answers," Marson said.
"I appreciated what they had to say," she said. "They aren’t like us. They’re not thinking, ‘Was this right or was it not right?’ They can tap into their expressiveness and spirituality in a free way."
Explaining how to use the book, Marson writes that when teachers and her students ask questions, "I know that their curiosity is aroused and they are engaged as active learners. In those moments of genuine inquiry, a door opens and freedom can be experienced."
The book begins with a question, demonstrating immediately that children may well see things in a different way than the adults at the Passover table: "Why do we open the door for Elijah? Can’t he just come in?" asks Daniella, age 11.
The author said the children in the focus group clearly enjoyed the project. One youngster told her, "We feel like we have a chance to let our brains fly out of our heads." Another child, recalling the rabbis in the Haggadah who discussed the exodus from Egypt until daybreak, said, "We have so much to say we’ll be here until the morning prayers."
Marson said she selected children she "felt a special connection with – who were particularly open to this kind of thing." By working with youngsters she knew through teaching, or who were the children of family friends, "I could create a space where they would feel safe to explore.
"I had a warm relationship with them," she said, adding that she created a comfortable mood – with jellybeans on the table – "so they would be able to go to that deep spot. Many felt good about that in the moment." One child, she added, said, "’Wow. I said great things.’"
Fourteen-year-old Gila Weinrib of Teaneck, who participated in a focus group when she was in first grade, said she remembers enjoying the experience a good deal. "It was a lot of fun," Gila said. "It made me realize the importance of Pesach." She added that she found that answering the questions was easier than she thought.
Amram Zeitchik, 14, another contributor, also from Teaneck, remembers that after the children answered Marson’s questions, "we would talk about the answer. It helped me learn more about what we were discussing."
Amram, who goes to school at SAR, was 7 when he was in the focus group. He said that the experience made him understand from the time he was young that "it’s good to ask questions. That’s how you learn new things."
Marson, who also is the author of "The Wisdom of a Starry Night: Using the Power of Great Art for Self-Awareness" (Barnes & Noble Publishing, 2006), suggested that "inquiry can really challenge children, people, to think in ways they hadn’t before."
"I’m really interested in the idea of having an open mind and being able to think creatively," she said, noting that the book came about when she added students’ personal questions to the traditional Haggadah being prepared for SAR’s model seder.
"I decided to incorporate their questions," she said. "It gave it personal meaning in addition to just collective meaning.
"It went over beautifully," she added. "The parents really enjoyed it because it was their children’s voices."
It also was clear that the school principal at the time, Rabbi Yamin Goldsmith, liked the book, returning to it several times. Inspired by this interest, Marson decided to pursue the project further.
"I think it’s filling a niche," she said. "I haven’t seen anything else like it out there, with open-ended explorations."
The author said the kind of questions children ask "depends on the type of child. The more concrete thinker will ask questions about ritual or the sequence of what we do and why. The more reflective type of child will ask open-ended questions like ‘What does it mean to be really free?’
"We need both parts," she said. "Questions are a vehicle of exploration. By asking questions, we deliver the message that asking is valued. We don’t have all the answers, but we can figure things out."
Marson’s book includes several kinds of questions. On the bottom of each page, beneath the child’s question, is one from Marson herself, challenging the teenagers and adults at the table to think more deeply about each issue. On the other side of the page, below the children’s responses, are relevant quotations and sources. Further reflections on some of the issues are included at the back of the book.
Marson suggests that it would be helpful to review the book before the holiday begins, flagging questions that might be particularly appropriate for each seders’ participants.
"It would be so exciting if people were able to learn something from the book, or be triggered by something from it, that deepens their connection to God or strengthens their [commitment] to strive for a more sensitive way of living," she said.