You have to love a holiday tradition that teaches kids the skills of either stealing from or negotiating with their parents--both things we would discourage any other time of year. This is the construct of the Passover afikomen custom.
At Passover, Jews gather for an extended orderly dinner called a seder to commemorate the story of Exodus when the Israelites were freed from slavery by the Pharoah. Most religious practices seem kooky to the uninformed, but Passover especially so: there is a place set for an invisible guest named Elijah, lumps of minced fish bullied into oval shapes, and a plate containing random items like a shank bone, a sprig of parsley, and a puddle of salt water. Judaism wrings meaning from these things. There is also wine--lots of it--as the ceremony calls for the drinking of four glasses each.
Whereas adults have wine to grease the wheels of ritual, the kids have the excitement of the afikomen. In fact, when I tried to suss the origin of afikomen hiding, I found one source after another pinning it on the need to jazz up the seder for the kids--an acknowledgement of the difficulty of keeping them planted in their seats during the recitation of bible stories. “We know, this is boring, but there will a scavenger hunt and some cash in it for you later.”
The afikomen is a piece of matzoh that is ceremoniously drawn from the middle of a stack of three during the seder. Then either this matzoh is stolen by the kids and ransomed back to the parents (turning your children into greedy warlords), or the matzoh is hidden by the parents for the kids to find then sell back at a negotiated price (creating mini-bounty hunters). The seder may not conclude until the afikomen is back in adult hands; trust me, after several hours of shushing children then alternately encouraging them to read aloud from their prayer books, everyone wants the seder to end. What we have are motivated sellers and motivated buyers--it’s a quick transaction.
Passover seders are generally held the first two nights of the eight-day holiday. This year, we spent the first night at a friends’ house. They tweaked tradition by hiding seven pieces of matzoh--one for each child. I initially felt conflicted about this endorsement of the “everybody wins” philosophy that permeates modern parenting. Then I thought of my son’s room--littered with sports trophies when the only basket I’ve ever actually seen him make was for the other team--and I felt heartened by the idea of focusing on the effort rather than the result.
In advance of our second-night seder, this one held at our home, my husband and I discuss his family’s tradition of kids clamoring over one another in a race to garner the hidden cracker. He’s partial to his own custom. But is a religious holiday really the time to teach tough life lessons? “Life isn’t fair kid, get used to it. Oh, and Happy Passover.” At least in the Easter made-up tradition of a giant bunny hiding eggs, the kids get chocolate. On the other hand, without competition, the afikomen hunt has no excitement. It’s like watching a lion fed at the zoo versus seeing one chase a gazelle.
My husband and I discuss the interpretations of the tradition beforehand and choose the Serengeti: one afikomen, one finder, one prize of one dollar. Done.
Imagine my surprise, then, when after dinner I look up to see my husband and the other parents frisking their purses and wallets and so much cash waving that it feels like we’re at the track. They’ve decided that each kid will get a dollar just for searching while the finder will receive two dollars. So now we have one matzoh hidden but seven payouts--you don’t even need to find anything to garner a buck. It’s like paying unemployment benefits to someone who was never employed. Major policy change has been instituted without me
My husband has forgotten that in parenting, there is no backsliding. You can’t, one year, give everyone a dollar then the next year go back to paying only the finder; that’s a recipe for anger and tears. That’s why, when my daughter asks if she can have a sleepover in our bed, I know my answer it isn’t just for that night but for all the nights to come; my response in that moment will fuel every coming negotiation.
We don’t usually have the luxury of making well-thought out, advance decisions; most parenting is done on the fly. Kids can’t possibly grasp the complex interaction of stress level, sleep deprivation, and mood that fuels parental choices. “But you let me have popcorn for breakfast that one time.” Yes, but then mommy was tired from being out late the night before and now I have just read an article on childhood nutrition and you must have a quinoa egg-white omelet for breakfast. It’s understandably difficult for kids to keep track of it all. Which is why, having a considered, pre-made decision going into a night like this is a plus. Unless, your husband is caving to his own set of unseen rationalities.
During the afikomen search, the kids run around in no discernible pattern, searching and re-searching places that have already been checked and ignoring other potential spots. One child checks the fireplace, then the next child peers into the same fireplace while both ignore the card catalog containing 50 drawers next to it. Their search is so haphazard and without reason that I wonder how any of them will make it in the world at all.
Finally, thankfully, and with many hints, the eldest child finds it. His negotiation with my husband goes something like this: My husband--“I’ll give you a nickel for it.” The kid--“Sure.” It’s the opposite of a hard bargain; it’s downright soft. We can cross “sales” off of his potential future career options. My husband shakes his head and hands the kids two bucks while the other children line up for their dole. Then, dessert.
My daughter and I have prepared what has become a passover mainstay in our home: caramel matzoh crunch. A quick online search reveals hundreds of recipes and as many names (matzoh brittle, chocolate caramel crackers, toffee matzoh candy) but almost all of them give a nod to what has become its street name: matzoh crack. It’s that addictive.
All feature four simple ingredients: matzoh, butter, brown sugar and chocolate. First, a crispy cracker layer, next buttery caramel, then a layer of bittersweet chocolate before the topping fun begins--the combinations are endless. This year, my daughter and I make dark and white chocolate versions, some with Heath toffee crumbles or nuts, and others with mini m-and-m’s.
The result is a fast-disappearing mound of colorful, crunchy deliciousness. Why do we only eat this once a year? We more than make up for the time by gorging ourselves. The kids dip theirs in ice cream and eat like they’re being timed. They run from the table with fingers still chocolate-coated, rejoicing at their freedom; we, their captors at the table for the evening--their evil pharaohs--linger at the now-childless table.
The kids strike up a quiz game in the next room. They, in turn, encourage and taunt each other. Answers are whispered; alliances are formed; there are winners and losers. These kids are going to be just fine. Someday they will look back at their trophies celebrating little more than participation, and wonder why they took such pride in them. Soon enough the competitive realities of the world will bear down upon them. Soon enough. But for now, it's right that they appreciate the uncomplicated joy of rummaging through fireplaces and sofa cushions and getting one over on the adults.