It was 11:20 last Saturday morning. A double row of gold-clad banquet tables in Temple Sinia on Military Road NW was set for a sedar meal for 90.
It was quiet. Forsythia and other floral decorations marked each place. The "wine" was waiting for the guests, who would all show up at once.
The doors burst open and the faithful - whose height averaged 4 feet giggled as they filed in. This sedar would be the finale of a workshop-filled morning. The 90 kindergarten-through-first-graders had had bits of the Passover story presented to them as they switched classes all morning in groups of 20.
At the seder, the story would come together. Their minds would connect, just as the minds and hearts of people the world over will unite at sundown this evening when world Judaism celebrates the beginning of the week-long festival of Passover with individual seders.
Marlene Solomon, director of the school had to keep moving to be heard up and down the long center aisle as she led the seder by reading from the Haggadah, the Passover prayer book, which tells the saga proclaimed in the Book of Exodus when the Jews broke from Egypt, from slavery, 2700 years ago. It was the first time that Jews had emerged as a nation.
"The mean Pharoah refused to do as Moses asked, to let the people go," she said. The Jews marked their doors with lamb's blood, so they would be spared God's anger and the "angel of death would what?"
"Pass over," cried a samll voice. "That's right!" Solomon intoned in the deliberate and enthusiastic voice that she has cultivated for her lectures before small children.
"The Jews were very happy to be saved from the cruel Pharoah," Solomon continued. "Moses told them to celebrate Pesach (Hebrew for Passover) every year to remember that once they were slaves in Egypt, but God helped them to become free. That is why we celebrate Pesach today."
Matzoh - cracker-like unleavened bread is the staple for Passover week. Many Jews will have cleaned the house or burned or scoured the surface of their stoves to remove any traces of leavening.
"Why do we eat only matzoh on Pesach?" asked Solomon, picking up a stack of four matzohs and laying one down. To stem the general confusion this question caused, she answered loudly, waving her finger up and down with the rhythm of her words.
"We eat only motzoh to remember that when the Jews left Egypt they had no time to bake bread."
Solomon picked out the middle matzoh from the three still in her hand and broke it in half. "This half is called the afikomen." She wrapped it in a napkin and placed it aside.
There was a tension in the air, for the afikomen is the favorite part of the meal for most children. It is the matzoh portion that is reserved by the celebrant in a napkin or specially embroidered afikomen cover until the end of the meal that it is ceremoniously divided for each participant, symbolizing the unity of those participating in the ritual.
A children's ritual has evolved during which the afikomen is hidden and it is up to the childeren to find it.
"Here is the afikomen!" said Solomon holding up the napkin-enveloped matzoh in mock defense. "We won't hide the afikomen. It is right here. I don't want 90 children srambling for it at the end."
Before she led the recital of the prayer over the matzoh she explained that there used to be three matzohs, but now there are four. "The fourth matzoh is called the matzoh of hope," she said.
The Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington has distributed the reading for the fourth matzoh, which has gained acceptance in comunities during the last 10 years, generally without regard to whether the participants are Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.
Solomon simplified it for the children: "We hope that next year the Jews in the Soviet Union or anywhere can be free to enjoy a seder."
"You may now take one bite of matzoh," instructed Solomon.
"Why do we not eat bitter herb, or maror, at the seder?" asked Solomon, allowing the children to construct Hillel sandwiches of matzoh and horseradish.
"(mumble) bitter life" said a 5-year-old, sliding off her chair in shyness.
"Yes," said Solomon. "To remind us of the bitter life in Egypt when we were slaves."
Solomon then took the children through the various Passover items on their plates. They dipped the celery, symbolizing the spring; into charoset, a mixture of chopped apples and nuts flavored with cinnamon and wine. The putty-like caroset symbolisies the mortar used by the Jews when they built the Egyptian cities. Then they dipped into bowls of salt water symbolizing the slaves' tears.
Parsely also is often used to symbolize the new life of spring. An egg is on the seder plate, too. It, somewhat like the Easter egg used by Christians to symbolize spring and a new life. Its roundness is thought to have symbolized cycles in ancient times.
A bone lies on the seder plate.It represents the slaughter of the Paschal lamb, the spring rite from which Passover grew.
In a ritual similar to that of sharing the alikomen at the end of the seder, the ancient Jews who shared the roasted lamb smeared its blood on their door lintels to mark themselves as participants.
It may have been this action that aided early anti-Semities to concoct the rumor that Jews used the blood of non-Jewish children to prepare the matzoh in what became Passover. In their defense, Jews would keep their doors open during the seder to let everyone see that nothing evil was occuring. Today, the doors are thrown open during the seder to welcome the spirit of Elijah the prophet.
"Whose cup is this?" asked Solomon, holding up a chalice of wine .
"Elijah's said many of the children for they had spent 20 minutes earlier in the morning painting plastic chalices with yellow, green and blue enamel spring designs. They would then be taken home and used as the family seder Elijah cup. The four doors of the room were flung open.
As the children finished their meal. Solomon told a reporter about the school, which the National Association of Temple Educators recently honored.
"We want it to be fun exciting and moving," said Solomon of the 365 student weekend school. The 26 teachers have schools in churches at Germantown and Olney.
Marcus Laster, excutive director of Temple Sinai, said that although the majority of children are from member families, the school does take children of non-members, but at a higher tuition rate.
Teacher Ivah-Lee Bern, who had been kissing and hugging many of her students throughout the morning, looked fondly over the group as Solomon began dismissing them to meet their waiting parents.
"This is what they'll remember when they grow up," she said proudly. If she is right, the staff will have helped fulfill the prescription given in Exodus 12:26, 27, to tell children the story of Passover.