The 40 Year Old Bat Mitzvah

The Afikomen Diaries

Posted in holidays, rituals, soulfish, spirituality by Juliet on March 27, 2010

(Originally published on Thanksgiving Feast on April 1, 2009.)

The Afikomen Diaries – Thanksgiving Feast

A friend (who shall remain nameless) mentioned the other day that she was heading to Best Buy to get her kids electronics for afikomen presents.


Ninety nine percent of you are asking, “What’s an afikomen present?” (The other one percent just navigated away to to see if there are any going out of business deals on ipods.)

The afikomen is a piece of matzo broken at the beginning of the Passover seder. It is wrapped in a napkin and hidden. Later in the night, before the seder can conclude, the afikomen must be found and eaten (as a very dry cardboard-textured “dessert.”)

Frequently, what happens with the afikomen is effectively a ransoming. Kids aren’t stupid, after all. (They even manage to arrange that it is found by both kids at the same time so they both get prizes.)

So is this something we parents should encourage? Is it the right thing to do? It sounds an awful lot like bribery, or blackmail, or something.

There are similarities to be drawn with Chanukkah, really. It’s been the “Jewish Christmas” for at least half a century. According to Grandma, in her childhood the kids got “a little gelt” – a few coins. This was the Depression so maybe kids got a penny or two. Now it’s Wii and bikes and tennis racquets and Mac Books.

Jewish holidays tend to be show and tell events. We do things a certain way or eat certain foods as a tangible reminder of whatever the takeaway of that particular holiday happens to be.

For instance: Shavuot? Eat cheesecake. Really. I am not making this up.

Passover is complex. It is to be understood on many levels.

It is about spring. Spring is time for new life, hope, optimism.

It is about freedom from slavery, both literal and metaphorical. We fled Egypt – Mitzrayim – with only the clothes on our backs. The symbolism of the matzo, of course, is that there wasn’t even time for the bread to rise. Bereft of everything, we were also weightless. There is a reason they call it a “thrill of fear.”

For all the rich freedom from slavery symbolism, it is ironic how much back-breaking and expensive labor and preparation is involved, especially for women. At our last Torah study session before Passover, we were discussing all the to-dos surrounding the holiday and the jaws of the several non-Jews in the class dropped. Yes, it is more than just eating matzo, having a seder, and not eating cake for a week. “Extensive” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Even with all the hard work, though, Passover is my favorite holiday. And perversely I enjoy it the most in years when I’ve followed the rules the most closely.

So back to the afikomen. Some sources say the tradition of giving an afikomen reward is a recent one, dating back only about 200 years (in a centuries-old tradition, what’s a century or two?) It was created from Talmudic wisdom urging parents to find a way to keep the children awake until the end. (Show-and-tell is for all of us, but for none so much as the children.)

Kids love Passover. They stay up late and drink wine (diluted with water)*. Everyone is gathered together and the entire table dotes on them. They get to do fun stuff with the plates. It’s religiously-sanctioned playing with your food. Why do they need a bribe?

Living in a predominantly non-Jewish area, sometimes I feel like I’m constantly telling the kids, “We don’t do that.” “Sorry, we can’t, because we don’t do this.”

No sitting on the Easter bunny’s lap. No Santa’s lap either. No Christmas tree. No caroling. Deciding what I let the girls do and don’t do is like hitting a moving target. Do we trick-or-treat? We decided to, but it’s not like they even like it that much. (They are much happier standing at the door in their costumes passing out candy.) And what about Valentine’s Day? Our religious observation like so much else in life is a work in progress.

Meanwhile, I try to really do it up for the Jewish holidays. I want our kids’ childhood to be about all the things WE DO, not those relatively few things we don’t. We can have a full-on major Torah-ordained, steeped-in-tradition holiday every single week if we observe shabbat.

That’s why Eva got all decked out for the Purim carnival a few weeks ago. She wore a floor-length Queen Esther dress with dress-up heels. (She even managed to eat pizza, play Lazer Tag, and jump in the Spongebob jumpy in it.)

At Sukkot, we build and decorate a sukkah, even though neither of us are handy, I can’t watch Scott use a nail gun, and we’re already tired out and holidayed-out from the High Holidays, which fall right before. Not only do we build and decorate the thing, but we try to always have a party with tons of friends and neighbors.

At Chanukkah, we give gifts. We probably don’t give our kids as many gifts for Chanukkah as others give their kids at Christmas, but it’s not a skimpy spread by any means.

So what to do about Passover, and the afikomen? I don’t think it’s ipod-worthy (not, at least, for my three- and seven-year olds) but I will probably end up raiding my gift cupboard.

I’m not above lusting after pastel-colored Easter egg decorations, cute door wreaths for every season, and the three-foot tall faux chocolate bunny I see every time I’m at Marshall’s during spring. I won’t buy my kids Easter baskets but if someone else gives them one, I am truly grateful for their thoughtfulness and Scott and I eat most of it. In essence we are all works in progress and that is where I am, now.

* I like to think our Jewish relationship with wine is “continental.” There is an intense cultural loathing of the “shikker” (“drunk.”) We are notable lightweights and our most famous wine (sweet Manishewitz) is horrible. But on the other hand, wine is intertwined with our blessings, our traditions, and our celebrations. My kids enjoy a “finger-dip” of wine and occasionally will have a small amount of real wine in one of those teeny little plastic cups during kiddush (blessing over wine.)

One morning at preschool, the kids sat down to their snack and the grape juice was served in tiny plastic cups. (Who serves dark stainable purple grape juice to preschoolers? I guess that’s why it only happened once during all of preschool.) Eva, who was three at the time, turned to the teacher sitting next to her and remarked, “I see we’re having wine.”