Welcoming the Stranger (to Judaism) at the Passover Table

As the calendar begins to hint at the end of a very long winter, a lot of people are thinking about having more time in the sun and packing their winter coats into storage.  I’m excited about those things, too, but I also have a little case of Passover fever. I love Passover for many more reasons than I’ll write about today. Today I want to talk about the guest list. As I plan my big April dinner party, I am not only thinking about the menu and the order of the seder. I am also thinking about the strangers, the people who come not knowing what the seder means to me, and the opportunity Passover grants to share that meaning.

Passover is my favorite holiday. My birthday falls right around the beginning of Passover, and as much as I complained as a kid about putting candles into Passover brownies instead of “real” cake, I’ve always loved that there is a big gathering of people I love right around my birthday.  In cold years like this one, especially, I appreciate that we have a day on the calendar where, rain or shine, we can announce our readiness for spring and rebirth.

Red WineAs an adult and often the seder planner and leader, I have also come to appreciate Passover for the way that it lends itself to sharing my own Jewish beliefs with friends and family, Jewish and not Jewish. On Passover, rather than inviting someone to a synagogue or a text study to learn what Judaism means to us, we invite them into our homes, to a great meal with plentiful wine and lots of good conversation.

During the seder we are commanded to invite the stranger into our home. We could debate the meaning of this phrase for days, but to me the first step of observing that is to think about who might be alone that night, and give them a call. My next step is often to consider who is a stranger to Judaism who might want to know a little bit more about both the religion and what it means to our family.

The seder encapsulates so much of what is most important to me about my Jewish practice. It demands thoughtful engagement, asks us to wrestle with difficult ideas, and spurs countless conversations. With storytelling as the primary tool, the seder reminds us to look to our past to inform our present and instruct us about the future. It includes a call to action and tikkun olam, to continue to work to make the world a better place. The seder also provides space to celebrate what we have, to sing and laugh and play games together. And, of course, there’s all of that food and the wine I talked about before.

Some people who are not Jewish probably identify some of those elements as the good parts of their own culture or faith as well. On top of that, the seder is chock full of universal themes. The story of enslavement and redemption is one common across many groups. The reliance on faith for hope and wisdom about how to be better people is something that draws countless parallels. A structure for welcoming and celebrating spring is something in which we all can participate. As parents, the seder reminds us of our dual responsibility to be both models and teachers, a practice that extends into the entirety of the job of raising children.

For me, the seder is one of the best parties I’ll have all year. The kitchen is a mess, the table overflowing with food, and the china makes its annual appearance. What better time to open up my home to our interfaith circle of family and friends, and to invite those who are strangers to Judaism to pull up a chair and join in the party.

The Blessing of the Broken Garage Door

The tarnished mezuzah on our front door has been on our doorposts in four states.

We have a mezuzah on the front door to our house. It is a lovely silver object that my mother gave to me and Cameron when we lived in New York. It has journeyed with us from the Big Apple to the doorposts of our homes in Connecticut, Ohio, and Texas. After more than a dozen years, it has accumulated the worn and tarnished look of a family heirloom.

I don’t think about or notice the mezuzah that much because we live in a house with an attached garage. We park our cars inside and enter our home through a door that connects the garage to our laundry room and kitchen. We mostly use the front door to let in visitors. Because of this, the mezuzah is more a sign to others that we are Jewish, than a reminder to us of our connection to Judaism or our responsibility to follow God’s commandments.

In preschool, Sammy even asked why we didn’t have a mezuzah. I said, “We have one,” and I took him to the front of the house, opened the door and pointed to the mezuzah.

“I didn’t know we had one,” he said, “because we never use the front door to come into the house! I think we should get a second one to put on the door near the garage because that is the way we come in. Then we can touch it. You know that you are suppose to touch it when you pass it, right?”

“Yes, I know that.”

Touching a mezuzah upon entering or leaving a room is a Jewish custom rather than a commandment. Many people place a hand on it when passing; others kiss the hand after touching it because they believe the holiness of the mezuzah transfers to the hand.

The tradition first appears in the Talmud in a story about a Roman convert to Judaism, who tells Roman soldiers that God protects the departure and arrival of his servants. The custom is also a reminder of love for God, the sanctity of the home, and God’s mitzvot.

I was glad Sammy was learning about Jewish traditions. I was also happy to add a mezuzah to the door from the garage into the house. I took Sammy to our synagogue’s gift shop and let him select one. He chose a wood mezuzah painted in vibrant colors.

The mezuzah Sammy selected for the entryway from our garage.

I asked a rabbi friend to help us hang it. He came over with his family and together we held a Chanukat HaBayit, the ceremony for hanging a mezuzah. We affixed it to the entry from the laundry room to our kitchen at a level that Sammy, then four-years-old, could reach. (The ceremony name sounds like Hanukkah and comes from the same root. Both mean dedication. Chanukat HaBayit is Dedication of the Home.)

Once the mezuzah was up, Sammy touched it when he passed. But after awhile, I stopped noticing if he continued to do so. I paid as much attention to this mezuzah as I did to the one on the front door. Usually, I was busy thinking about other things as I entered the house.

But then, a few weeks ago, a spring on our electric garage door broke. Cameron could not get the part to fix it, so we needed to park on the street in front of our house until the door was repaired. As soon as we began using the front door, I saw that when Sammy entered the house he tapped the mezuzah as he passed through the entryway. I didn’t say anything; I just assumed it was something that he did at his day school and that sometimes he remembered to do it at home.

But then I noticed that he touched it every time he entered the house. The consistency of his mezuzah “high-five” made me conscious of touching it myself.

One afternoon after school, Sammy asked if I knew why he was touching the mezuzah when he entered the house. “Because it’s Jewish tradition?” I asked.

“Well, yes, but that’s not why I’m doing it,” he said.

I expected a typical Sammy response, one that would offer some profound nine-year-old insight into this old Jewish custom. I was wrong.

“I’m doing it because we’re having a ‘who can touch every mezuzah that they pass contest’ at school.”

“Oh,” I said, a little disappointed in the mundaneness of his explanation. I guess these are the games kids at day school play. I asked, “Do you think anyone will know if you touch the mezuzah at home?”

“No, but I don’t want to stop because then I might forget when I’m at school and lose the game.”

The more I thought about Sammy’s rationale for touching the mezuzah, the more I realized that he was forming a habit. A habit can be defined as an acquired behavior that becomes nearly, or completely involuntary. While we often take habitual actions for granted, they are the things that provide comfort to us in the midst of the uncertainties of life.

The Jewish habit that Sammy was forming through the game might not be deeply meaningful or important now, but one day, it might take on a more significant meaning. During high and low points in his life, touching the mezuzah might remind him that he’s not alone, that he’s part of the larger Jewish community; or that his home is sacred, a refuge, a sanctuary; or that something bigger than us exists in the universe.

Observing the consistency of Sammy’s mezuzah tapping made me consider in a conscious way my own Jewish behaviors; how they sustain me and provide a measure of predictability in the craziness of daily life. Watching Sammy caused me to be more mindful of my habits. I guess that was the hidden blessing of the broken garage door.

Ending the Shabbat Protests

Ruthie's Homemade Challah

Three weeks ago, I read Jodi S. Rosenfeld’s post about peeking through her fingers at her kids during candle lighting instead of focusing on her own prayerful moment with a twinge of envy.  Rosenfeld’s urge to peek is certainly one I’ve had, too. And recently, it’s the kind of challenge I’ve longed for in contrast to what’s been going on at our Shabbat table. For weeks, Ruthie refused to participate in our blessings, sometimes trying to sing (or yell) over our prayers. The only way to welcome Shabbat to our table without protest was to allow her to retreat to her room during prayer time, which broke my heart a little bit. Getting her back to the table required that I stop trying to model the rituals exactly how Eric and I defined them, but instead adapt them so that she felt like a full participant.

Shabbat has always been a special time for our family. It adds a transition into our lives from week to weekend, it reminds us of how nice a family dinner can be, and it creates “an event” even when the agenda is staying in for the night. Ruthie has always enjoyed the singing and the candles and the food, and her little sister Chaya lights up when I strike the match to begin our celebration.

But in spite of all of the loveliness of Shabbat, Friday nights are hard, and they have become harder since Ruthie started a (wonderful) all-day elementary school program. She is exhausted from a full week of school. Her sister is starving (Chaya is usually ravenous, but it always feels a little worse on Fridays). Often we are running around because Eric or I stayed a little too late at work, trying to wrap things up for the weekend. Our house is usually at its most tired, too, so we are sometimes washing dishes to set the table or moving piles of papers around to clear off our dining space.

In this environment of exhaustion, a couple of months ago Ruthie decided she didn’t want to do Shabbat. When I asked her why, I didn’t get very far at first. “Because it’s stupid.” “Because I don’t like the prayers.” “Because I am hungry.”

And then, finally, an answer I could work with:

“I don’t want to be Jewish, Mommy.”

Ouch. That hurt. But I didn’t want to let on just yet.

“Why, Ruthie?”

“Because I don’t understand the prayers. We don’t say them in English, and I don’t know what we’re saying.”

Aha!

“Could we try doing Shabbat again if we said the prayers in English?”

“Sure,” she agreed.

I remembered that last Passover InterfaithFamily had turned me onto Gateways, a fantastic organization that provides resources for children with special educational needs to engage in Jewish Learning. Turns out, their resources are great for people of all abilities and ages. Their blessing sheets, complete with visual supports, are exactly what we needed to meet Ruthie’s request.

Two weeks ago, I printed out copies of the Gateways blessings for us to use during prayers. With these, we started a new ritual, where Ruthie reads the blessings in English before we chant the prayers in Hebrew. Her enthusiasm has grown, as she leads the blessings with great pride. For now, the protests are over, and I can focus on trying not to peek again.

What Would Esther Think?

Queen Esther, the brave, beautiful and intermarried heroine of Purim.

Over the past month, the intermarriage debate has once again flared. On one side are the longtime advocates of in-marriage who convened a group of Jewish leaders to discuss the future of American Jewry and sound the alarm about the impact of assimilation and intermarriage on the community. On the other side are the proponents of outreach who have called for “audacious hospitality” towards intermarrieds and other groups on the fringes of Judaism in order to grow our ranks.

As I have read the back-and-forth between the pro-endogamy and pro-outreach camps, I have found myself wondering, what would Esther think?

Who is Esther and why should we care what she thinks? I am referring to Queen Esther, the brave, beautiful, and intermarried heroine of Purim who rescues the Jews from genocide and ensures the survival of the Jewish faith (at least until the next lunatic tries to destroy us).

The story of her daring actions is told in the Book of Esther, the only book in the Bible in which God is never mentioned. It is an ancient tale that addresses contemporary issues such as bullying, bystander intervention, and anti-Semitism. It speaks to us about courage, standing up for justice and personal responsibility, and because God is absent, it reminds us that heroes can come from anywhere – even interfaith homes.

Esther’s Jewishness and marriage tend to be glossed over in the Purim speils that retell her story, but she was like 44% of Jews today – assimilated and intermarried. She might have even defined herself as a Jew of no religion. She was a classic Jew of the Diaspora, exiled from Israel, cosmopolitan, a Jew of the city. (Note: Interpretation of the Book of Esther varies from one Jewish tradition to another). Her husband, King Ahasuerus, had no idea that she was Jewish, and she was content to keep it that way.

But then her uncle Mordecai, who was one of the king’s ministers, refused to bow to Haman, another of the king’s advisors with whom he had a workplace dispute. Because of the refusal, Haman convinces the king to kill all the Jews of Persia. Now, the saliency of Esther’s Jewish identity was to be tested.

When she learns of the decree, Esther is faced with a choice: remain silent and maintain her highly acculturated lifestyle or reveal her faith and risk losing everything, even her life. She makes the courageous choice and tells her husband that she is a Jew. Her action saves the Jewish people.

Like many Jews in interfaith relationships, Esther becomes more conscious of her Jewishness only after she intermarries and her Jewish identity is challenged. In the end, she embraces her Jewish-self, but she also stays married to her not Jewish husband.

Esther is hailed as a Jewish hero, regardless of what kind of Jew she is (you can bet she didn’t keep kosher). She is called brave and beautiful, not intermarried. We do not judge her choices; we do not say she did the right thing but. We remember her for her righteous action, not her interfaith relationship. We find in Esther’s story something good even though we do not define her marriage or choices as ideal.

Esther reminds us of the on-going struggle to balance worldliness and righteousness, and that there are ways for Judaism and intermarriage to co-exist. I think that, if she were alive today, she would write an op-ed piece in the Jewish press making the case for the inclusion and engagement of intermarrieds in Jewish life.

She would ask us to consider the consequences of her marriage being prevented because of a religious norm. She would point out that her story teaches that everyone has the potential to be a hero including interfaith couples.

She might even suggest that intermarrieds who create a Jewish home are modern day Esthers. After all, they are investing in a Jewish future by raising Jewish children. This may not be as spectacular an action as saving an entire people from extinction, but it is no less heroic. When it comes to preserving Jewish continuity, interfaith families can be Jewish heroes too.