More fun than you can shake a banana at

More fun than you can shake a banana at

A burlap bag, a rope, and presto, Dr. Suldan is a Hebrew slave. Inset, Passover points young seder participants could earn.

How do you make a Passover seder interesting for children – the ostensible target of the evening’s command to “tell your children” of the Exodus from Egypt?

How do you ensure the story of the redemption from slavery to freedom aren’t drowned out by whines of “when do we eat?”

Dr. Zalman Suldan has been thinking about these questions even before the birth of his daughters, now 11 and 14. Dr. Suldan, a nephrologist, will share his suggestions and experience at two upcoming talks in synagogues in Teaneck. (See box.)

But before we get to his story, here’s one secret trick that will stop all your guests – adults as well as kids – from interrupting the parting of the Red Sea with their pangs of hunger: Instead of (or in addition to) dipping parsley into salt water, dip bananas into chocolate syrup.

From the standpoint of Jewish law, bananas and parsley take the same blessing.

From the standpoint of the structure of the seder, the dipping serves the function of providing the hors d’oeuvre for a long, talk-filled evening – and bananas are far more filling than parsley.

With that snack out of the way, we return to the story, which began the year Dr. Suldan and his wife, Dora, a pediatrician, hosted a seder for family members, including nieces. Not yet parents themselves, “We started thinking, how are we going to get the kids involved?” he said.

That’s when they came up with their first innovation: Handing out points – little preprinted certificates – for each question asked or answered by a child. At the end of the night, the child with the most points earned a treat.

That was the beginning.

But what really kicked the inspiration into overdrive was a seder-night revelation a few years later.

“One of our neighbor’s guests got sick at his seder and he ran to our house to see if we could help,” Zalman Suldan said. “He happened to knock on the door just as we were finishing the afikomen.

“Picture the guy: He’s wearing a kittel” – the white robe that some wear on Yom Kippur and the seder night – “he has gray hair and a white beard.”

In other words, a ringer for Elijah the Prophet.

“It just changed our seder. That was a eureka moment,” he said.

Once Elijah showed up, anything was possible.

“It just took off from there. Can we bring out props? Can we think of costumes? Every year we added a little more and did something a little different,” he said.

Of course, doing more and different takes planning.

A couple of years ago, after the recitation of the 10 plagues, the Suldans stopped the seder.

“Get up, everybody,” they said.

“What’s Abba and Mommy doing now?” asked the children, as they were led into the next room where backpacks waited for them, loaded with pajamas, matzah, hats, and sunglasses. (You wouldn’t want to travel out of Egypt without hat and sunglasses, would you?) The parents led the children around the house, and through a doorway that had been covered with a blue table cloth – crossing through the sea.

The next year, Dr. Suldan slipped upstairs during the Haggadah reading and changed into a Pharaoh costume. When it came time to recite the plagues, “I ran downstairs and chased them through the sea,” he said.

“Last year, the kids on their own said, ‘What can we add to this?’ We got a blue picnic tablecloth and they drew pictures of fish and sea horses and chariots. We hung that on the walls in the hallway.”

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Dr. Suldan’s seders were more sedate. “Certainly they weren’t exciting,” he said.

“We were the only Orthodox family among our extended family. We generally had all the aunts and uncles at our house for the seder. We just read through the haggadah. As lot of my family couldn’t read Hebrew, so it fell to my brother and me.”

Still, he attributes his inclination to shake up the seder to his mother.

“My mother tells the story that when my parents first got married, her father used to run the seder. My grandfather would say it all in Hebrew. My mother couldn’t read Hebrew. One year my mother and father sat down and found a translation and glued it into the haggadah.

“It created a big uproar because it was something new. It was a hint of what was to come.”

Dr. Suldan has distilled five principles of how to run a fun-for-kids seder.

Second: Put food on the table to be eaten, not just talked about. Bananas as karpas is only his latest technique. A few years ago he made bingo cards, with different squares indicating different aspects of the seder. “As the kids went through the seder, they were waiting for the next box to fill.” And to fill the cards, there were marshmallows and gummy bears and carrot slices. “It meant they also had something to eat.”

“Two years ago we put a second seder plate on the table where we had foods that represented other things at the seder and they had to guess their significance. Ice cream sprinkles for the plague of lice, gummy bears for wild animals. They had fun guessing, and it was also ready for them to eat if they had to.”

The third principle is friendly competition.

The point system is one approach. Another year he made up a Passover Jeopardy game with answers and questions on a big board.

Fourth: As the kids get older, try to give them jobs. His daughters helped find the pictures for the bingo board.

Fifth: Less is more. “When the kids were younger, we really tried to move through the seder. You don’t have to discuss everything. They come home from school with things they want to share; we try to space that out during other meals over the holiday.

“We warn our guests that it’s a kid-friendly seder. We want some adult conversation, but we try to limit it,” he said.

Still, in the end more, or at least new, is more, and each year Dr. Suldan looks to raise the stakes. In the Torah, immediately after the crossing of the Red Sea comes the rebellion at Marah. The Israelites complain that the water is bitter, and God has Moses cast a tree into the water, which then becomes potable.

“I’ve gotten a blow-up swimming pool and a little blow-up palm tree,” he said. They’ll be placed in the hallway, right past the blue tablecloth. He doesn’t think his wife will let him fill the pool with water.

What: Workshop in creating kid-friendly seders

When and where: On Wednesday, March 18, 8 p.m., at Congregation Shaare Tefillah, 510 Claremont Ave., Teaneck

When and where: On Saturday, March 21, 4 p.m., at Congregation Beth Aaron, 950 Queen Anne Rd., Teaneck

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