Frogs: The Surprising Star of the Passover Table

Throughout history, the amphibians have often been symbols of change and liberation, making them a fitting symbol for the Jewish celebration.

Open the door, my honey, my heart. The Frog King

Over the past decade or so, I’ve noticed a fundamental shift in the thematic focus of the Passover Seder—the ritual meal that recalls the Jews’ journey from slavery to freedom. My childhood memories are of songs and symbols of liberation: a trail of matzah crumbs leading out of the wilderness, fresh green sprigs of parsley emerging from salty water like an enslaved people emerging from a sea of tears. The Seder also contains equally vivid recollections of the horrors of divine wrath (blood, boils, darkness, gefilte fish). But in the 21st century, one symbolic element has usurped the focus at countless American Seders I’ve attended: frogs.

Biblically speaking, frogs were the second of 10 divine plagues unleashed upon Egypt when the Pharaoh refused to free the Hebrews from slavery. Today, frog napkin rings, plush dolls, plastic figurines, table cloths, t-shirts, matzah covers, and candle sticks—all can be found in abundance at the Seder table. But rather than bemoan this amphibious invasion, I’ve begun to embrace it. Why? Because the more I looked, the more examples I found throughout history, science, and the arts of how the frog symbolizes the struggle for liberation—the very liberation Jews celebrate on Passover. But as the Israelites soon learned on their generation-long trek through the desert, the path to freedom is paved with many obstacles—not the least of which is, according to the Torah, the human heart’s resistance to change and its refusal to confront the status quo.

Sometimes this resistance to change takes the form of human stubbornness. A thousand years ago, medieval rabbis wrote a midrash (essentially biblical fan fiction), which imagined that the second plague started out as a single, massive frog that multiplied exponentially every time the Egyptians struck it in their obdurate efforts to drive it back into the Nile. As explained in a commentary to the midrash by 20th century Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, “When the Egyptians saw the result of their beating the frogs, why did they not stop? Rational thinking told them to stop, but they became enraged when they saw the result of their beating the frogs—and they lost control.” In the imagination of the medieval rabbis, the plague of proliferating frogs is a vivid reminder of the danger posed by the humans' resistance to such change—the "hardened heart" the Torah warns of.

Frogs also represent stubbornness in a comedy written by the Athenian playwright Aristophanes, written in the early 5th century BCE. In The Frogs, the eponymous creatures symbolize resistance to using art as a mode of change: They try to thwart Dionysus, the god of theater, from his journey to the underworld to rescue the recently deceased master playwright Euripides from the dead. Likewise in the playwright Stephen Sondheim’s version (first performed with a student cast that included Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver in the Yale swimming pool!), the frogs are vehemently opposed to any effort to change things for the better. Nathan Lane, who starred in and freely adapted Sondheim’s version in the early 2000s, said, “After September 11 … there’s something idealistic about the notion of someone believing that the arts can make a difference.” The frogs are emblematic of all who would deny that such change is possible: “[We’re]Frogs/Of the pond/And the fronds we never go beyond … Whaddya care the world's a wreck?/Leave 'em alone, send 'em a check,/Sit in the sun and what the heck,/Whaddya wanna break your neck for?” In this play, the frog’s cry is a challenge to those stuck in the mud of indifference.

The dangers of remaining stuck in the mud are made perfectly clear in the famous 19th century fairy tale: “On the Variation of Reflex Excitability in the Frog Induced by Changes of Temperature.” In this oft-cited study, scientists claimed they had proven that a frog would remain in increasingly hot water even to its death, provided the temperature was raised gradually enough. These claims were later disproved, but the image is still powerfully lodged in the collective imagination. James Fallows has advocated in The Atlantic against the retelling of the boiled-frog myth as fact. But as Paul Krugman wrote in a New York Times op-ed in July of 2009: “The hypothetical boiled frog is a useful metaphor for a very real problem: the difficulty of responding to disasters that creep up on you a bit at a time." Whether the disaster is the Cold War, climate change, the erosion of civil rights, or the hardening of the human heart mentioned in the Torah, the frog in boiling water is yet another reminder that it's all too easy to avoid confronting the status quo until it’s too late.

Alas, as every devotee of the old-school video game Frogger knows, the journey toward change isn't an easy one. But as every elementary-school child will tell you, the metamorphosis from tadpole to frog is a stunning transformation to behold. And so it’s no surprise that some authors use the frog not as a symbol of human stubbornness, but rather as the embodiment of the very change people seek to avoid.

Certainly this is true of the German folk tale, The Frog King (aka Frog Prince). The hero’s transmogrification from frog to prince clearly echoes the frog’s biological gift for evolution. Yet the frog is also a reminder that a person cannot change on his or her own: Change comes when a heart is opened to another, such as a loved one. When it comes to frogs, we see this theme again and again—when a frog transforms, it only happens in relationship to another living being.

A perfect example is the film that Stephen Spielberg once called, “The Citizen Kane of animated film,” One Froggy Evening. In this 1955 Chuck Jones classic, a frog is discovered by a construction worker inside inside the cornerstone of a soon-to-be-demolished building. To his amazement, the frog bursts into a singing, dancing ragtime routine, transforming from a dull, croaking lump into a song and dance sensation. Yet despite the man’s attempts to cash in on his protege’s talents, Michigan J. Frog (as he came to be known) does not change for the sake of fame or profit, but only for the one who uncovered his hidden self, who witnessed his potential for change in the first place.

Of course, there's one frog who's a teacher par excellence: that harried herder of chaos, Kermit the Frog, who in his big-screen debut is the heart and soul of a modern-day Canterbury Tales. Throughout Henson’s The Muppet Movie, Kermit reminds his fellow travelers the importance of sticking together on the journey toward transformation. He may have escaped from the swamp on his own, but Kermit teaches his friends that the only way to “write your own ending” is to see in each other their true potential to change, to grow, to realize their dreams.

Finally, there is Magnolia, which writer director Paul Thomas Anderson called, “for better or worse, the best movie I'll ever make.” And thanks to its surreal frog-filled climax, I would argue that it’s also the best Passover movie ever made. The 1999 film is a three-hour epic that weaves different storylines together, all of which deal with the painfully troubled relationships of a diverse group of grown children and their flawed parents. Parents who, like Pharaoh, have cast children down regret-filled rivers, forcing them to navigate the rocky shores of their own adulthood filled with resentment and angry memories of abandon or abuse. These children now struggle as adults, their hearts closed by the pain of their childhoods, unable to grow and change in the ways which they so desperately need.

The pain of these flawed parent-child relationships is epitomized by a heart-wrenching scene where Frank Mackey (played by Tom Cruise) finally agrees to visit his terminally ill, cancer-ridden father Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) on his deathbed. Earl had cheated on Frank’s mother repeatedly during their 23-year marriage, eventually abandoning her when she herself was dying of cancer, forcing their 14-year-old son Frank to care for his mother alone—a sin Frank had never forgiven.

Frank himself had compensated for this early trauma by becoming a shallow, manipulative, power-hungry professional womanizer—his motto: “I am the one who’s in charge!” In his father’s weakest moment, all of Frank’s anger and schadenfreude floods to the surface. But Cruise, perhaps channeling the experience of reconciling with his own estranged, dying father as a young man, poignantly shifts Frank’s agony from rage to loss. Speaking to James Lipton about his own father, in an Inside the Actors Studio interview, Cruise said, “We create our own suffering in our life. Our own isolation.” And so it feels powerfully real when Cruise’s character sobbingly pleads with his father, “Don’t go away, you fucking asshole! Don’t go away!” Frank realizes in that moment that he is not a slave to his hardened heart. He's ultimately freed by this need for connection.

And then…

Frogs. Hundreds. Thousands. As they rain from the sky in literally biblical proportions, it finally makes sense why there are allusions to Exodus 8:2 throughout Magnolia. The verse warns Pharaoh that frogs will come if he doesn’t let go. Every character who was struggling with the past or with loved ones becomes a witness to this unexplained event. But it's the aptly-named Stanley Spector, a former boy genius played by William H. Macy, who sees the “miracle” for what it truly is. As he watches the frogs rain down all around him, he says, “This happens. This is something that happens.”

When do frogs happen? If Passover, ultimately, is about fighting against the heart’s tendency to close itself off to change, then frogs deserve their new-found place of honor at the Seder table. So as I sit in my froggy pajamas and gaze at my children, my wife, my relatives, I’ll raise my frog-shaped wine glass, and ask, as Brett McKenzie put it in his 2012 Oscar-winning song: “Am I a man, or am I a muppet?” Do I, like Pharaoh, allow my heart strings to be pulled taut by an ineluctable calcification, stuck in the muddy status quo that closes me off from others? Or will I allow myself to take the leap necessary to change, to forgive, to love, to connect with those around me, even when they push me to the boiling point? Frogs appear again and again, with their demanding riff on the Seder’s essential question: Will this night be different?