Rush for the exodus

24th March 2006 at 00:00
Tom Deveson joins pupils on a trip to the Jewish Museum for an exhibition celebrating the first Passover

Just round the corner from Camden Town tube station, Moses and his followers are crossing the Red Sea. A lively group of Year 4 children from St Joseph's RC School are re-enacting the story as part of their visit to the exhibition Passover: Journey to Freedom at the Jewish Museum in north London.

The children have plenty to do in their two-hour stay, with their hands, eyes, ears and minds fully engaged. Susannah Alexander, who organised the exhibition, has thought carefully about a diverse audience. "Themes such as freedom, overcoming difficulties and making choices have powerful resonances for children from many cultures. Passover has something to which they can all respond."

Susannah talks all the children through the first Passover. They squeamishly enjoy hearing about the plague of frogs, shudder at the thought of the Angel of Death and practise making the sound of the guttural ch suffix as they pronounce the word Pesach in their best Hebrew. Some of them work with Susannah on making covers for matzah, the unleavened bread that plays a central role in Passover celebrations. Others try some of the other food that is eaten in Jewish households at this time - the charoset (a sweet paste of fruit, wine and spices) that recalls the mortar used to build pyramids for Pharaoh, and the bitter herbs that evoke the ancient memory of slavery.

Downstairs there is plenty to look at. There is a superb series of archive photographs of Passover from many times and places, featuring the Feldmans in 1960s Soho and the Vitolis in modern Tirana, as well as families in Bombay, Dagestan and Ethiopia. Haggadot (books retelling and explaining the story of the Exodus) are shown in many beautiful and varied forms, including one from 18th-century London. There are frogs here too. Nineteen of them carry letters that form an amphibian anagram (eat matzah at Passover), and others appear on a silver plate used for the Seder meal.

Most Jewish children think of Seder as the central Passover experience.

It's the time when families and friends gather to share food, history and songs. There is a Seder table in the exhibition, which soon gets all the children busy pressing buttons, solving puzzles, completing jigsaw puzzles, listening to songs, rolling dough and feeling for a set of invisible symbolic objects.

Ciara Dunphy approves: "I like the way they've designed it. It's really good to see the clever way they provided different activities."

Amaka Ozumba is struck by one of the tasks: "You have to make the unleavened bread dough really and truly flat."

In an adjacent room, eight children are dressing in costume to perform a play. Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh and an Egyptian princess meet in confrontation, dramatically directed by a volunteer, Hanna Orenstein, who is a retired teacher. Others loom ominously as the plagues of blood, boils, darkness, wild beasts, hail, locusts, frogs (again) and Death.

Joshua Bourne liked wearing the royal robe and golden chain: "It made me feel powerful and grand when I told Moses to fetch the slaves."

Ciara adds: "It helped me think about what they went through all those years ago." She and her friends are looking back across three millennia, but their discussions during and after the visit focus on contemporary issues, too. They talk about tolerance and the fear of others that sometimes makes it seem a difficult option. One shy voice offers an idea that adults might think about: "It's the same God for all of us, but we say it in different words."

lThe exhibition continues until May 29

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