I Wish Cokie and Steve Roberts Were In Our Camp

Cokie Roberts, who I love as an ABC News commentator, and her husband Steve Roberts, have published a new “interfaith Haggadah”–Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families.

I have to confess to very mixed feelings about this. I don’t like feeling envy, but I do.

I’m envious because as celebrities, Cokie and Steve Roberts command a lot of attention. Their book is getting pretty extraordinary publicity for a Haggadah – have you ever seen another new Haggadah featured on MSNBC or ABC News? Or the subject of a book tour, with stops in Washington DC, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and I’m sure pretty much all over?

Now Steve Roberts is Jewish, Cokie Roberts is Catholic, and they’ve been married for 45 years. Their approach to interfaith family life, as best I understand it, is to observe both of their religions in their home, to expose children (their children are now grown) to both religions, and not to raise children to identify with one religion or the other.

We don’t pass judgment here at InterfaithFamily.com. We don’t say the Roberts’ approach is wrong, or bad. But it’s not the approach that we recommend to interfaith couples, and I’m envious of the publicity their approach is now getting.

In our camp, we think engaging in Jewish life is a wonderful source of meaning and value that is available not just to Jews but to their partners too, and we do what we can to invite interfaith couples to try it in hopes they will like it. We don’t say the religious traditions of the partner who is not Jewish should be hidden or forgotten. But in the surveys we’ve done for the last seven years, interfaith couples raising their children as Jews do participate in Christmas and Easter celebrations, but not in the religious aspects of the holidays. That’s the approach we recommend.

It’s wonderful that Cokie Roberts participates very fully in her family’s seder and appears to have been the driving force in starting the tradition in the first place. But according to ABC News, the Roberts’ Passover traditions “have evolved into a unique multi-cultural celebration that is exclusive to no faiths.” I think that’s sad. The Passover seder is exclusive to one faith — to Judaism.

What our camp needs is an interfaith couple with celebrity on the level of Cokie and Steve Roberts, to write a book about how an interfaith couple experiences Passover as a fundamentally Jewish, not multi-faith, holiday, as the story of the redemption of the Jewish people that is meaningful to both Jews and their partners. And then go on TV and a national book tour. Any takers?

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5 thoughts on “I Wish Cokie and Steve Roberts Were In Our Camp

  1. So, their approach isn’t wrong or bad, just sad?  (Don’t ask me why, go ask your Dad.)  That sounds like judgement to me.

    Jews have had a lot to do with multicultural non-exclusivity of Passover, and I’ve seen (and used) the feminist, socialist, and pro-civil rights Haggadahs to prove it.  I’m from an interfaith family, and the seders my family held were very traditional.  People from non-interfaith Jewish families included me in non-traditional seders – using Haggadahs that either rejected or didn’t assert Jewish essentialism.  These have highly pro-labor, civil-rights, and/or feminist slants.  I am not surprised that this tradition figured heavily in the Roberts’ observation.  

    If you don’t like those texts, fine.  But it seems to me your beef has very little to do with the choices of interfaith families, and much more to do with the idealogical and spiritual persuasions of some Jews. Those non-traditional Haggadahs strike my Catholic-raised non-convert Dad, for example, as downright hokey.  

    Personally, I find the traditional essentialist seders impossible to get through.  They make me feel like the wicked child. I thought it was my interfaith background. It was liberating to find other Jews (parents and children) who had the same reaction.  The old non-traditional Haggadahs are kind of hokey, though.  Which is why I like this one, below.  http://velveteenrabbi.com/VRHaggadah.pdf  It includes the following alternative text for the wicked sons:

    “The High EQ one, [what does s/he say?]: (Exodus 12: 26) “[What is] this service to
    you?” So you will make an effort to reign in hir longings, for s/he also wants to be apart of the integrity and perfection that comes with meaningful rituals. If you are
    loving, then s/he will understand devekut / cleaving, and s/he will get a taste of what it means to feel close to God.”

    It cuts to the spiritual point of encouraging the suppression of the ego for the community and G-d instead of the punitive removing the “wicked son” from the community.  And the Haggadah contains the traditional alternative, so we can see where we’ve come from.

  2. Dan,

    I don’t have any problem with using a non-traditional Haggadah.

    In fact I use with my own extended family the Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah that you mention. (My favorite addition one year was to play a Matisyahu song, I think the title is “Chop ‘em Down,” that tells the Passover story.)

    I also don’t have a problem with public “seders” like the “Black-Jewish Seder” or the “Irish-Jewish Seder” that I’ve seen advocacy groups conduct — but those aren’t pretending to be a Passover seder themselves.

    My problem is with making a Passover seder not a Jewish ritual, and more broadly, mushing religion traditions together so that their integrity disappears.

    I’m sorry it sounds like I’m passing judgment. It’s very hard to say “we have a good thing, you have a good thing, we really like our thing” without implying “ours is better” or “yours is wrong and/or bad.” But that is what I’m trying to say, without implying the negative.

  3. Mr. Case –

    I haven’t seen their Haggadah, but I read the forward, and it did say that it wasn’t Christianized.  Also, I don’t think I quite understand the distinction between  between “seders” and seders.  What I understand is the different ways the Passover story is interpreted.  If I understand you correctly, the application of the Passover story to the civil rights movement was a mere metaphor, much in the way a “seder” is a mere metaphor.  I’m not sure I believe that the Jewish participants in such “seders” felt that way.  It was metaphor, yes, but not merely. 

    Among my peers, I doubt anything so deliberately mushy as what the Roberts are doing will have any kind of hold for aesthetic reasons, nor do I think that Cokie Roberts has any celebrity appeal among those of us now starting families. (Let’s face it, her performance in the last election cycle proved she’s out of touch.) 

    What is taking hold among my (progressive Jewish) peers is pretty naturally mushy, multicultural, and (mostly) metaphorically understood (metaphors don’t preclude truth, rocks are, after all, hard as rocks).  Still, you can’t understand metaphors without a literal narrative.  And if that’s what you mean, I agree with you.  Still, seders held among my peers tend to be very comfortable for all sorts of participants, Jewish or not.  And they would be even if no non-Jews were at the table. 

  4. We have a very traditional Seder, and there is nothing that would make non-Jews uncomfortable unless they were uncomfortable per se with a Jewish story or Jewish ritual.  What I understood Ed Case to be saying (but I don’t want to put words in his mouth, so please correct me if I’m wrong) is that the Seder, regardless of how it may speak to many multi-cultural settings, is at its heart a Jewish story.  The Roberts may have a perfectly nice Seder that is very meaningful to them and their guests. But using the seder as a vehicle to “mush religious traditions together” makes the Seder no longer about the Seder but about fulfilling some other underlying agenda – again possibly very meaningful to the participants, and that’s fine – but it shouldn’t be confused with a Jewish seder.  And the fact that the Roberts’ seder is not specifically Christianized (and Cokie Roberts has been clear on that point) doesn’t make it a Jewish seder.

    As for Ed Case’s wish that a celebrity interfaith family write about how they experience a seder in a Jewish way – I can’t offer that, but my wife and have almost completed our book about our own journey and do plan to publicize it to interfaith families.  We have no celebrity status – just in my own community where I was a Federation director (and Steve Roberts did speak once in my community for a Federation event).  When my wife and I met, she was Christian and I was Jewish.  She had a senior position in a Texas mega-church and I was not very connected Jewishly.  We were for many years an interfaith couple, but ultimately became a Jewish couple, and a very traditional one at that.  Our hope is that the twists and turns of our journey – and there are many – may serve as a guide, possible inspiration, and at least some food for thought for intermarried families.  Hopefully, more details to follow soon.

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