CULTURE SCHLOCK – By Darren Garnick
“Passover toys celebrate Ancient Egypt’s regime change”
Originally Published: The Telegraph, April 10, 2003
As an adult, I find the Passover story to be compelling and overflowing with life-affirming themes. Survival. Freedom. Redemption. Triumph of the Human Spirit. As a kid, I was preoccupied with two themes: “When is this story going to end?” and “Why is my family service sponsored by Maxwell House coffee?
Passover, which commemorates Moses’ showdown with Pharaoh, begins next week. On the first two nights, Jewish families retell the story at Seders (a dinner-prayer combo), and read from the Hagaddah. The English translations of these Hagaddahs are horrendous, written by Shakespeare wannabes who sprinkle around words like “whilst,” and “thee.” After the sixth or seventh poem about rams and sheep skipping around the Sea of Galilee, the average kid is zonked.
Many Hagaddahs printed in the 1950s and 1960s, and handed down to the next generation, were published by Maxwell House coffee. The back page shows a happy Jewish family gathered around the Passover table and enjoying a freshly brewed pot of coffee. What better way to commemorate the liberation of the Hebrew slaves, after 400 years of pyramid construction, than to pour your loved one a cup of Maxwell House?
I don’t know if Sanka or Taster’s Choice ever infiltrated Easter Baskets, but I am proud to report that this marketing ploy was not 100 percent effective. I never touch the stuff.
On behalf of all the children celebrating Passover next week, I implore parents to shake up the Seder plate a bit. If cute little Aaron or Rachel are staring at the coffee ads, you have sentenced them to an evening of intolerable boredom. Luckily for the kids, there is a growing adult movement to make Passover more engaging. Two examples are the Exodus board game and the “Plagues Bag.”
The Exodus game is Passover’s version of Trivial Pursuit. Answering the Who, What, Where, Why and How the Israelites bolted from Egypt brings you one step closer to the Promised Land. First one to cross the Jordan River wins.
“Exodus came out of the desire to get my family recharged about Passover,” says game creator Syndi Kercher, a school teacher from Tucson, Arizona. “I invented the game for us to use during our Seder and we had a blast… Other things I’ve done is play Passover Jeopardy, held the Seder picnic style in the backyard, and held multiethnic/spiritual Seders in the park.”
Exodus, aimed at ages 8 and up, is content driven and will delight parents who prefer not to resort to a Moses vs. Pharaoh video game to get their message across. But will kids want to play? You bet. Even without questions about Harry Potter, it is a game that involves winning and losing. I remember even in junior high school our Spanish class would be clamoring for the chance to play “Vocabulary Volleyball.”
Out of context, you may expect the “Plagues Bag” to be filled with anthrax. But of course, it refers to the infamous Ten Plagues that convinced Pharaoh that Moses was backed by the world’s most formidable superpower, God. The Plagues Bag is filled with the following gimmicks/toys:
1. BLOOD – Red food coloring to turn the Nile into hemoglobin.
2. FROGS – A springloaded frog that does a backflip and lands on its feet.
3. LICE – Black plastic lice that could double as plastic ants.
4. WILD BEASTS – A rubber elephant nose representing the wildlife rampaging through downtown Cairo.
5. CATTLE DISEASE – A collapsible plastic cow with wobbly knees recalling Pharaoh’s agricultural woes.
6. BOILS – Bubble wrap which is more pleasant to pop than skin lesions.
7. HAIL – Styrofoam balls.
8. LOCUSTS – A hot pink grasshopper.
9. DARKNESS – Cardboard sunglasses.
10. DEATH OF THE FIRST BORN – A jigsaw puzzle of a distressed Egyptian mother.
The assortment of trinkets is packaged in a handsome burlap sack that summons up the image of papyrus hieroglyphics. Toy quality is also a level above Skee Ball prizes or birthday party booty, making it likely kids can use the same plague props a few years in a row.
Plagues Bag creator Simon Jaffe, executive director of Congregation B’Nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, NJ, was inspired by his daughters Kori and Molly.
“I didn’t want the Seder to be as uninteresting as the one’s I remembered from my childhood,” he says. “… To me the purpose of the Seder is to bring the next generation into the collective memory of our people and our history.”
Jaffe has sold more than 60,000 of the Plagues Bags to raise money for scholarships and educational programs. Beyond the plagues, he also places a bowl of goldfish on the table as a reminder of the parting of the Red Sea and dresses up as Moses for the second half of the Seder.
“My guests’ favorite plagues are the plastic lice and hail balls which they love to hurl at each other,” reveals Jaffe. “The most difficult plague to represent was death of the first born because of the harshness of it. What I decided to use was I think most respectful of the severity of the plague.”
My only critique is that Jaffe doesn’t include enough lice. Six little critters isn’t enough to infest a single scalp, let alone a whole table full.
Lice portions aside, both the Plagues Bag and the Exodus game are two steps in the right direction to make the Seder table a desirable destination for kids. And neither toy contains propaganda for the coffee companies.
MORE EXCLUSIVE PASSOVER COVERAGE:
** Why I would have been a horrible Pharaoh !
** Schlock Flashback: Steven Spielberg’s Country Music Moses
** The Joys of Plastic Lice: Passover toys celebrate Ancient Egypt’s regime change
** Schlock Flashback: Origins of the Moses Duck
** Let My Tastebuds Go: I dare you to try Passover breakfast cereal!
One response to “The Joys of Plastic Lice: Passover toys celebrate Ancient Egypt’s regime change”
Great article, but I need to make two points. No, three.
1) Passover does NOT “commemorates Moses’ showdown with Pharaoh”. It commemorates GOD’s showdown with Pharaoh. Moses is barely mentioned in the Seder.
2) Nobody but nobody use those crappy Maxwell House Hagaddahs … except for people doing their regular grocery shopping and discover that Passover is tomorrow night.
And those stilted translations derive from the 1890-1929 era, when Jews (mostly British Jews) thought it lent Shakespearean “class” to a “primitive” text. (It’s long and dreary story.)
There are now literally hundreds of superb translations out (same with the Bible and the Prayer Book).
3) The “plague bag” is a rip off (or maybe I mean a commercialization) of an old Hasidic Seder custom. Same lice, same blood, same hail, same frogs. I had it done to me when I was in college. Now I do it from my own stash of plague goodies.
What DID he use for the death of the first-born?