We Tell It To Our Children


A Haggadah For Seders With Young Children

By Mary Ann Barrows Wark - Illustrations By Craig Oskow

book cover

Book Review

We Tell It To Our Children: A Haggadah for Children and Adults

book puppetMiriam

A review by Nancy Nutting Cohen* in Dovetail February/March 1994

Are you looking for a Passover Haggadah that is sensitive to the interests and attention span of young children, yet also inspiring for adults? Do you believe that a Passover seder should be a joyful celebration, rather than a solemn, drawn-out ordeal? Do you need something that gives lots of user-friendly information (how to's, why's, recipes, songs, etc.)? If you answered "yes" to any of the above, Mary Ann Barrows Wark's We Tell It To Our Children: The Story of Passover may well be your answer.

Probably the most unique feature for this haggadah is its use of puppets to tell the story. The Leader Edition comes complete with nine characters drawn on card stock, which children can color or decorate, cut out and mount as finger or rod puppets (directions are included and easy to follow with some help from an adult).

These puppets become the basis for "acting out" the story of Moses, his encounter with Pharaoh, and the Exodus. It's in this context that the narrator explains why the table is set with bitter herbs, charoset, matzah, etc. Children (and adults) of all ages can take part, the older children taking the more advanced reading parts, and younger children taking beginning or non-reading parts (there's even a sheep puppet who simply interjects "Baa, baa" on cue!) Female parts are also included in the roles of Miriam, Yocheved and the Princess. Additional Guest Editions (without puppets) are available.

Another delightful piece of the drama is the use of music. Scattered throughout the narrative are verses set to the melodies of American folk songs. These songs can be "picked up" at first reading, adding fun and laughter, and involving everyone. Imagine the lives of the slaves (to the tune of "I've Been Working on the Railroad").

I've been working on these buildings;
Pharoah doesn't pay.
I've been doing what he tells me
Like making bricks from clay.
Can't you hear the master calling,
"Hurry up, make a brick!"
Can't you feel the master hurt me
Until I'm feeling sick.
Oh, this is a mess, (2X)
Oh, this is a mess for Jews, for Jews.
Oh, this is a mess, (2X)

Watch the plot thicken as each of the ten plagues is sung (to the tune of "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain"):

First, God will change the water into blood (ick, ick).
First, God will change the water into blood (ick, ick).
There'll be nothing left to drink; With no baths you all will stink
When God changes all the water into blood (ick, ick).

Feel the tension as Pharaoh's mood keeps changing (to the tune of "Clementine"):

Every time bad things got started
He would almost let them go;
But as soon as things got better,
He would switch and tell them NO! (shout no).

See Pharaoh crumble under the pressure (to the tune of "Itsy-Bitsy Spider").

My river and my sun gods have always helped me rule.
Down came the plagues and folks think I'm a fool.
Up comes the slaves' God and tells me what to do.
I'm a roughy-toughy Pharoah.
Why won't my gods come through?

Not even Cecil B. DeMille could create a more engaging dialogue or production than a family and guests using this script!

Interfaith families especially will appreciate the user-friendly nature of this book. Wark has included detailed instructions about the ceremonial foods (what they symbolize, how they go on the table), tips for organizing the puppet drama and lots of commentary on how to make the most use of this particular haggadah. The haggadah includes a number of additional helpful features:

  • Craig Oskow's many illustrations, engaging even if only in black and white, help keep younger children and non-readers interested and focused.
  • Blessings during the meal appear in Hebrew, a tranliteration of the Hebrew, and in English.
  • Traditional Passover songs, such as Had Gadya / An Only Kid, Ehad Mi Yodeah / Who Knows One, Adir Hu / God of Might, are also included in Hebrew and English, with music. Perhaps the only way this haggadah could be improved would be to include a tape cassette of these.
  • An annotated bibliography of additional Passover resources for children is listed in the back.
  • Various suggestions are offered on how one might integrate extended Jewish family and encourage reflection and discussion of modern struggles for freedom.

This last point leads to the issue of how this child-focused haggadah can also speak meaningfully to adults. Aside from the sheer fun of the puppets and songs, the story lends itself to reading between the lines. As Wark herself explains, "I have raised many questions over the years: Did Moses know he was Jewish when he was in the palace? How did he know? Did others in the palace know? How did he feel when there were anti-Jewish discussions? How did Moses persuade his own people to go along with him? How did he deal with Pharoah? What was it like when the plagues came?…..I hope you will raise and try to answer questions too. The true celebration of this holiday of freedom requires each participant to feel the issues, to grapple with the inherent dilemmas, and hopefully to forge a part of the self to deal with the issues as they are real in our lives."

Ms. Wark is a woman of impressive credentials and accomplishments, ranging from multiple degrees from Ivy League universities to teaching law school and serving as temple president. Yet she believes her "major accomplishment and joy is being a mother." This Haggadah is proof positive of her great love for and understanding of both children and Passover.

*Nancy Nutting Cohen has degrees in theology and religious education and is currently working toward a Certification in Spiritual Direction. She lives with her interfaith family in Minneapolis, Minnesota.