Apr. 6--CHESHIRE -- You might at first wonder just how bitter the lives of the ancient Israelites could have been as slaves in Egypt had they been able to eat chocolate, chocolate and nothing but chocolate for dinner.
You might even wonder what all the chocolate being passed around Sunday morning by more than 60 kids at Congregation Kol Ami's first, decidedly nontraditional chocolate seder. The seder is a Passover meal that conveys the Passover message of throwing off chains and embracing freedom.
This seder even included chocolate eggs that looked suspiciously like Easter eggs.
But if you delved a little deeper, as the Kol Ami kids did, you might come to this: "I don't know if chocolate was even invented yet" back in biblical times, "but chocolate is fun, isn't it?" Rabbi Andrew Hechtman asked them rhetorically. "And slaves aren't allowed to have any fun, are they?"
The kids at the Conservative synagogue in the Highland Industrial Center off Route 10 all shook their heads in agreement. By that time, many wore chocolate mustaches in a seder marked by chocolate-covered matzoh, apples and strawberries dipped in bittersweet chocolate and no fewer than four glasses of chocolate milk drunk in place of wine.
"So, free people not only get to eat chocolate and have fun, but free people are even able to express themselves!" Hechtman told them, urging them to "have a wonderful, free and exciting" Passover.
Passover celebrates the ancient Israelites' exodus from Egypt and God's sparing, or "passing over" of their first born when the first-born of Egypt were slain during the 10th and final plague. The holiday begins at sundown Wednesday and continues for eight days and nights. Observant Jews refrain from eating bread and all leavened foods throughout the holiday and sit down for seders on the first two nights.
The kids, who even dropped 10 drops of chocolate milk onto their plates (instead of the customary wine) to signify the 10 plagues that preceded Pharaoh's decision to grant the Israelites their freedom, found the seder's chocolate-coated message pretty easy to swallow.
Sam Unsworth, 8, of Cheshire, said he learned "that it was actually fun to learn and be around your friends." He'd like to do it again next year, only "maybe with a little less chocolate."
Adam Upadhyaya, 8, of Southington got to ask the English version of the traditional Four Questions, but with a twist or two. Instead of a question about bitter herbs, he asked, "On all other nights we eat all kinds of chocolate. Why on this night do we eat only bittersweet chocolate?"
But the seder left a decidedly sweet taste in his mouth.
"It tasted good, and I hope we do it again," Adam said.
The chocolate seder has become popular in recent years on college campuses and among high school-age Jewish youth groups. Sunday's seder was the brainchild of Kol Ami Hebrew teacher Ruthie Greenblatt, Hechtman said.
It was a way to connect with kids in a different way in the hopes of imparting in them the kind of strong Jewish identities that will carry them through adulthood, he said.
"It's not enough for them to know the facts of the holiday," Hechtman said as he and congregation President Howard Krieger watched the kids file out after the seder. "Doing a chocolate seder is really different than the model seder" that usually takes place in synagogue, he said. "It creates the opportunity for them to assimilate different kinds of learning and help ignite their souls" as Jews.
Greenblatt said she picked the chocolate seder "because it had the fun of the chocolate" and the kids "really seemed to enjoy it."
The specially written chocolate seder hagaddah, or Passover prayerbook, which was taken from the University of California at Berkeley Hillel organization's "A Liberal Haggadah," was downloaded from the United Synagogue Youth Web site, said Hechtman. USY is the high school youth group arm of the Conservative branch of Judaism.
Cheryl Wolansky, who runs Kol Ami's religious school, said the seder could only take place before the holiday because some of the foods included, while kosher, are not kosher for Passover.
While the seder was aimed at Jewish children, some parents attended. Some couldn't help but ingest a little chocolate themselves.
"What? It's sitting right in front of me! What am I supposed to do?" joked Andrea Anderson, mother of Alyssa Anderson, 3, after being caught nibbling a piece of chocolate from the table where she was seated.
"I think the idea is wonderful," Anderson said later. "But you can't put a plate of chocolate in front of a kid and have them sit for an hour" before eating it.
"It was cool! Awesome! All chocolate!" said Daniel Krieger, 7, of Cheshire. "It was fun," he said. "Lots of fun."
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