The search for the Afikoman, (a half piece of matzo) was the favorite part of the Passover seder for Dr. Andy Gurman when he was a child.
Growing up near New York City, Passover seder in Gurman's family was spent at his grandparents' house, and children were a big part of the celebration.
"It was a large family gathering," Gurman said.
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec) Mendel Stein, 7, and his brother, Srolik, 2, are determined to make sure all the leavened bread is removed from their Duncansville home before Passover as they search for crumbs in the living room. Jews around the world will begin the eight-day Passover celebration at sundown today.
Toward the end of the seder, adults hide the Afikoman, which is a piece of matzo broken in half intended to be eaten for dessert. The children are sent to find the Afikoman. In some families the children are rewarded with money or candy. Gurman's grandfather started a tradition in which he hid money inside large walnut shells.
"My grandfather would split the walnuts in half and fold up a dollar bill and glue the walnuts back together," Gurman said. "He would say 'All I have are these walnuts.' But, when you cracked, it you would find there was a dollar bill in it."
Gurman of Hollidaysburg, chair of the ritual committee for Temple Beth Israel, has tried to carry on his grandfather's tradition with his own children, Karen (now 27) and Amy (now 26), as well as other children of family members and friends.
While Gurman occasionally hid money in walnuts, he also has hidden money inside origami foldings, Pez dispensers, plastic eggs and hollow chocolates. As a surgeon, Gurman uses his expertise with a scalpel to open the object, place the money inside and seal the edges without the children noticing a thing.
"I'm always on the lookout for something I can hide money inside of," Gurman said.
Like Gurman and his family, many Jewish families enjoy making Passover fun for children.
Even before the start of Passover (which begins at sundown today), children are encouraged to clean the house and search for any crumbs or traces of leavening, which is forbidden in the home during Passover.
Passover commemorates the freeing of Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
In the biblical book of Exodus, God freed the Jews from slavery after inflicting 10 plagues on Egypt. The last plague was supposed to kill the first born son of every family. So that the God would "pass over" the Israelites, homes were marked with lamb's blood. When the Israelites were freed, they left in such a hurry they could not wait for dough to rise, which is why leavening is not allowed during Passover.
Traditional preparation for Passover involves cleaning the house with a feather and spoon to rid the house of all leavening. Some Jewish families make this a game for children by purposely hiding foods with leavening.
"As far as preparation, there's a lot of it. Passover doesn't just creep up on you. You're anticipating it, even as a child," Chana'le Stein, director of the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Center of Greater Altoona in Duncansville said. Stein and her husband, Rabbi Yossi Stein, also a director at the center, are Orthodox Jews.
They involve their children, Mendel, 7, and Srolik, 2, and Chaya Mushka, 9 months, in the traditions.
Before Passover, the children vacuum crumbs from underneath the mattresses and search the house for any foods with leavening.
Food is an important part of the celebration with many families using old family recipes.
Rabbi Audrey Korotkin of Temple Beth Israel loves making her grandmother's brisket.
As a child, Korotkin remembers enjoying the family gatherings at her grandparents' house in Philadelphia.
"It was a small house, but they managed to fit a whole lot of people," Korotkin said. "I think the most important thing was the whole family being together."
In most gatherings, children are a part of the celebration.
"It's a holiday very much geared to children," Chana'le said.
The seder includes four questions children are encouraged to ask. The adults respond to the questions by reading the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Jews' freedom from slavery in Egypt.
"The point is to get them in the mode of asking questions, and then they should ask even more questions," Yossi said. "It leads into explaining why we're Jewish and why are we still celebrating something that happened thousands of years ago."
Seder meals can last four or five hours, so adults try to keep children engaged and excited.
Rabbi Josh Wohl of Agudith Achim Synagogue, and his wife, Julie, try to make it fun for the children. Wohl, who grew up in Detroit, remembers anxiously awaiting seder meals at his grandparents' house.
"It was a fun time for the kids. There were always games for us to play," Wohl said.
He tries to continue the fun for his own children Sam, 5, and Micah, 2.
Every time a child asks a question, adults toss candy at them, encouraging them to ask more questions.
Last year, they enacted a play with the children to illustrate the Exodus. Sometimes the children work on art projects and share them at the seder and music is often incorporated into the observance.
"We try to make it new and creative so it's not so monotonous," Wohl said. "It's a child-friendly holiday."