Frog is jumping everywhere
An energetic, inquisitive young amphibian leaps onto the pages of the Haggadah
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
The frog in this Haggadah has a clear-cut case of ADHD — but one that is entertaining and makes for lighthearted fun. “The Family (and Frog!) Haggadah,” published in February by Springfield-based Behrman House, is not a pediatric version of the Haggadah, but rather one that children, and bored adults, can enjoy at the seder.
Frog, a 5-year-old cartoon character developed by New Jersey children’s author and ventriloquist Karen Rostoker-Gruber, jumps onto every spread with silly puns, quips, and questions. He gets distracted by flies that turn out to be locusts (think the ten Plagues). And he’d like more grape juice, please.
But Frog also supplies background on traditions — like the information that reclining at the table was “in ancient times considered a sign of royalty” and expresses our freedom. Frog encourages an interactive seder, with “Try This!” boxes scattered throughout the pages that include little tidbits to spark interest. For example, “Take turns passing around a mirror, and have participants look into it and visualize themselves as a slave.”
And for families who have adopted new customs, you don’t need to search your basement or Passover boxes for the sheet Aunt Susie created with the reading for Kos Miriam. It’s right there on a spread next to Elijah’s Cup, with reference to the first usage of a Miriam’s Cup at a seder in 1989, thanks to some research done for the Haggadah by Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna.
On a recent visit to Rostoker-Gruber’s home in Branchburg, Frog, the puppet based on the character in the Haggadah, was eager to chat with a visitor about his favorite color (purple), his favorite part of the seder (the Four Questions), and why he likes visiting with kids in schools around the area (because they’re funny).
Rostoker-Gruber has a quirky sense of humor, plenty of energy, and the ability to shift her mindset quickly to that of a child. She points out that “because Frog is 5, he sometimes is not paying attention” — like many of his peers at a seder.
The text is mostly in English, with blessings and songs in Hebrew; transliteration and translation are supplied. It was written by Rabbi Ron Isaacs, author of more than 100 books and rabbi emeritus of Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, where Rostoker-Gruber happens to be a member.
“In my wildest imagination I could never have been involved in a project like this,” Isaacs told NJJN in a phone conversation. It’s not that he’s never written a Haggadah — KTAV Publishing House issued one he wrote with fellow Jerseyan Rabbi Kerry Olitzky in 1994 that was updated in 2013. But it’s the silliness and the humor of “The Family (and Frog!) Haggadah” that is new to him. Many of his books take a serious approach to accessing Jewish life and practice, encompassing holidays and life-cycle events. But with Rostoker-Gruber, Isaacs acknowledged, he was able to just have fun with the subject while still sharing with readers his love for living Jewishly.
This is the second publishing collaboration between Rostoker-Gruber and Isaacs; the first was “Farmer Kobi’s Hanukkah Match” (illustrated by CB Decker), published in 2015 by Apples and Honey Press, an imprint of Behrman House and Gefen Publishing. It was a National Jewish Book Award finalist.
In Frog’s Haggadah, the structure of the seder is intact, but lightened. Greatest hits are shortened. “Dayeinu,” for example, finishes in three verses; required sections are often shrunk to a minimum, so don’t look for a full Birkat Hamazon, or even the common short form — this one is very abbreviated (one paragraph). You won’t find the section on the rabbis arguing all night in B’nei Brak either — except in a “Did you know?” box.
There’s no commentary here. That kind of depth is, well, out of Frog’s reach.
But there are enough extras and suggestions that this Haggadah provides for the makings of a lively seder, and a leader can add depth with extra readings.
Rostoker-Gruber has a “just do it” spirit with no room for self-doubt and a drive that leaves little time for things like television — except for “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette,” she acknowledged without even wincing. Again: She doesn’t bother with self-doubt.
A former employee in the print production department of Sandoz pharmaceuticals, now a division of Novartis, Rostoker-Gruber, 53, has been writing since childhood — or at least since she moved to Pompton Lakes when she was in elementary school. Unlike in Brooklyn, where she was born and where there were always kids outside playing stickball or hopscotch or jump rope, in her NJ neighborhood, she said, “there was nobody to play with. I had to find something to do, so I started writing.”
Her adult humor books were first published while she was in college (in Trenton State University, now The College of New Jersey) in the late 1980s and early ’90s. She started writing children’s books in 2003 after attending a children’s literature conference at Rutgers University.
For her, making Frog part of the Haggadah was natural. She always uses animals in her children’s books. “I only write about animals because people have too many restrictions,” she said. “Children can’t go out in the dark without a parent; they can’t cross the street without someone holding their hand. It’s easier to write about animals.” She’s had nine children’s books published since her first in 2003, and in a drawer in a home office, she has another 92 manuscripts ready to go.
When she first conceived of a Haggadah with animals running through it, Rostoker-
Gruber had a mouse in her head, but Isaacs wasn’t keen on that. “Something about a mouse in a Haggadah was too icky,” he said. And he rejected out of hand the idea of a cat or a dog.
Then “a light went off,” said Isaacs, and the frog hopped in. He pointed to the amphibian as a symbol of transformation, echoing the idea of the seder as a ritual that is all about change. And frogs are already associated with the seder through the second plague — and the toy frogs and finger puppets, often part of a “plagues bag” — that have become ubiquitous at child-friendly seders.
Isaacs envisions a future for Frog in other holiday books. For now, Rostoker-Gruber is enjoying being Frog’s voice, forever 5 years old.