Thirteen Years of Passover: An Interfaith Introduction

  
Passover-seder-table

Setting the Passover seder table

This year, I’ll be celebrating my 13th Passover with my husband. As a way of introducing myself as a new InterfaithFamily parenting blogger, I want to reflect back on what’s become many years of shared Passover meals. I was happy to share some reflections on the December holidays in a post late last year, and I’m very glad to be starting a regular blog here with InterfaithFamily.

When I mentioned it to my husband, Ben, he was surprised to hear that we have shared 13 Passovers together. We met in graduate school for religious studies in 2001, and were married in an interfaith ceremony in 2005. I was raised Episcopalian, but have been involved with Unitarian Universalism for about 15 years; Ben grew up in Reform Judaism. We had our first daughter in the fall of 2009; at 5 1/2 she is a delight, and full of questions. Our younger daughter is just shy of 2 years old, and looks just like her older sister.

For my first Passover with my then-boyfriend, we traveled from our graduate school program to North Carolina, where Ben’s brother lived at the time. I would be meeting his family for the first time, and I worried endlessly about what to wear, what to say, what to do, and how to help. The mood at that first Passover was at times both joyous—as when my boyfriend’s family got out of their chairs and started to twirl each other in circles during “Dayenu”—and nerve-wracking, when the conversation turned to the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I remember sitting through that conversation, terrified to say anything, lest whatever I said be the wrong thing to say. We used a homemade haggadah that my boyfriend’s father had created and recreated over the years, photocopying, cutting and pasting together his favorite versions of songs, poems, stories, and images. The obvious love that went into preparing the text for the meal impressed me, and gave me an early window into why Passover had always been my then-boyfriend’s favorite holiday.

Dancing to Dayenu

Ben’s family dances joyfully to “Dayenu” at our first seder together.

For several years, I enjoyed learning about the Passover tradition Ben had enjoyed with his friends from college. Every year, a large group of twenty-somethings descended on someone’s vastly rearranged living room for a raucous seder involving jello Manischevitz shots, “death-by-matzah” (matzah covered in butter, brown sugar, and melted chocolate), plenty of good food and excellent camaraderie.

The year after we married, Ben and I hosted a large Passover seder at our new home in New Jersey. My mother’s siblings and some of their children lived in the area, creating a 13-person seder at which the only Jewish attendees were my new spouse and his parents. Thankfully, I am blessed with in-laws whose company I enjoy greatly, and the two mothers also like each other, which went a long way to create a joyous, rather than stressful, occasion. Ben adapted his family haggadah to be intelligible and approachable for the seder’s many gentile participants.

Two years later, Ben and I found ourselves living in rural North Carolina, in a town where the tiny Jewish population consisted almost entirely of retirees. We started hosting annual seders with some of our friends, all of whom were not Jewish and unfamiliar with the Passover seder. Ben had fully embraced the idea of the seder as a time when all people should experience the feeling of freedom that the ancient Israelites experienced in the Exodus, and I entered into that spirit gladly. Some friends came back year after year, looking for another taste of Ben’s family recipe of Sephardic charoset, or amusing renditions of songs like “Clementine” translated into verses about Passover. Perhaps, like me, they waited for the hilarity of these songs to die down, so that the peace offered by singing “Oseh Shalom” at the end of the seder could rise to the surface, and giving the evening with a sense of tranquil wonder. If peace is a type of freedom, that moment of peace always set my heart free to celebrate as a fellow traveler with the Jewish people.

Seder on the couch

Moving Passover to the living room. Baby Laurel sits on her grandmother’s lap.

When I was pregnant with our first daughter, I announced my pregnancy to our friends by drinking non-alcoholic wine at the seder, preferring that to the overly sweet taste of grape juice. Once Laurel was born, she added an increasing level of chaos to a meal that seemed, to her, to drag on for too long before real food appeared. Suddenly, matzah crumbs were everywhere, and one year, a haphazardly-thrown plush pull-toy plague ended up in someone’s water glass. We moved our seder from the dining table to the couches, allowing our increasingly mobile child, and our friends’ children, to enjoy themselves as we attempted to stay on track with the haggadah. Each year, Ben streamlined the haggadah more and more to make up for her small attention span and growling stomach.

When Laurel was three, we moved from North Carolina to the suburbs of Chicago, and our seders changed yet again. Some of Ben’s extended family live nearby, and and the past two seders became family affairs, painted with memories of too much pepper in the gefilte fish, or the year the power went out and the seder became a candle-lit night to remember.

Now, after over a decade of attending and hosting seders, I pitch right in. I know the recipes, and I know the main prayers. Last year we attended a seder at the home of some of Ben’s extended family, and I found that I know the traditions well enough to feel comfortable at someone else’s seder. It reminds me that even within families who celebrate the same holidays, traditions vary and the emotional tenor of an event can change with the hosts.

This year’s seder will present perhaps the biggest challenge yet. We’re hosting, and we expect to have 19 guests. Between my 22-month-old baby and my husband’s great aunt, who is in her 80s, our seder runs the gamut of ages and experiences. I am not quite sure if all of the guests will have chairs to go with the pillows on which they will recline, but I do know that I am excited to once again be a beloved stranger within the gates for a night that truly is like no other.

Happy Bat Mitzvah Anniversary!

  
March 25, 1989

March 25, 1989

This week was my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary.  I always feel a little lighter on my feet on my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary, like it is a mini-birthday that only I celebrate. I’ve never really talked to anyone about their Bat Mitzvah Anniversary, to find out if other people walk around reflecting on their day when it rolls around each year. There would be something religiously poetic about talking about this coming from a sense of my anniversary being some kind of a spiritual birthday, that I take time on March 25 to re-read my Torah portion, or to go to minyan. But that’s not really why I feel so light. It’s about a lot of other things; things about family and friends and a shift in how I perceived myself as an individual, Jewish or not.

I may be wrong, but I’d imagine that for many people who grew up Jewishly, whether you practice Judaism or not as an adult, your anniversary, or at least the memory of your Bar or Bat Mitzvah would carry a little of that. In my estimation, the main difference between having had a Bar Mitzvah and not is not whether or not you ever became an adult, or people ever talked to you about “becoming an adult.” It’s that if you had a Bar Mitzvah, there was a moment in time that stood out in marking that progression (even if it was years before adulthood set in), rather than the multitude of smaller events that mark the passage from child to teen to adulthood over time for all of us.

So what is my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary about for me? As much as we can recognize that in today’s society, a child is hardly an adult, or near that, at 13, there are some big things that happen when you become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. First, of course, you are called to the bimah to read from the Torah – the first time you are fully able to do all of the things adults do during religious observance. Through Torah and D’var Torah (the speech), you make a commitment to begin engaging with your community as an adult – to try out being a grown-up. But the other stuff? Here are a few things:

  1. The dress. Stepping aside from my interest in creating a post-feminist framework for my girls where a woman’s appearance isn’t such a big deal (referenced in my last blog post), I will say that a lot of my memories are about the dress. But it’s not about buying a dress because I needed to look pretty. It was the dress as a symbol of passage. My mother and I spent hours and hours shopping, and my father got involved, too. The conversations were not about whether or not I was pretty enough, they were about looking “grown-up,” finding a costume that was respectful of traditions and appropriately mature, but also comfortable. And it meant lots of one-on-one time with Mom, which made me feel pretty special, since I was the oldest of three. Whether or not the dress achieved the goal was yet another story, but the learning was in the process.
  2. The party. My party was a luncheon at the temple. It was a big and wonderful production. While I have mixed feelings about how big is too big for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah party, I will say that if you take away the high-priced disc jockey and the gorgeous catering, my real memories are of the warmth of having everyone I knew and loved under one roof. This only happens a very few times in any person’s life, and I feel lucky that I had the unique experience of a Bat Mitzvah to make this happen an extra time for me. And perhaps it is not about being an adult, but I would argue there are very few things that make you feel as solidly grounded in the universe as being in a room full of family, familiarity and love.
  3. The expression of individualism. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah is an important moment during which a child makes an individual journey within their community. The one-on-one tutoring with my cantor, studying and planning, and reading my D’var Torah in front of a room full of people, all demanded an inner focus and ability to differentiate myself from others in the crowd. If you can remember back to your pre-teen years, this is not something many of us were trying to do at that particular moment in time. Being forced to say “Here I am,” at 13 wasn’t just about preparing religious life, but for everything from planning my wedding to prepping for a professional presentation. It was a big deal for me.

So perhaps my Bat Mitzvah Anniversary is a mini birthday for my individuality and independence, or perhaps it is just a day to remember how lucky I have been to have lots of great people around me in my life. If you were raised Jewishly, perhaps some of this resonates for you. If you weren’t raised Jewishly, and you have a Jewish partner, or a child who has become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, give them a mazel tov on their anniversary this year.

This Passover Let Your Creativity Go Wild

  

This post originally appeared on Jane’s Interfaith and Jewish blog.

reuse-plastic-easter-eggsIf you or your Jewish partner is like me, you remember your childhood Passover seders as long and boring affairs. There was no child-friendly Haggadah, toy plagues, or jumping around as everyone sang “Frogs here! Frogs there! Frogs were jumping everywhere.” Maybe there was a kids’ table, which was acknowledged only when the youngest was asked to recite the Four Questions.

As an adult, whether you are Jewish or from another background, you may have wondered, why can’t Passover be fun? The answer is, it can be. The holiday can retain its serious and important message and be enjoyable. It just takes a little creativity.

When my son was a toddler, I thought a lot, about how I wanted him to view Judaism. As an intermarried Jew raising a Jewish child, I wanted him to associate observance with fun and enjoyment, rather than obligation. I didn’t wanted his childhood memories of faith to be the same as my husband’s or mine–more serious than fun.

Because of our early experiences, my husband and I shared the feeling that it was important to make the holidays and Judaism enjoyable in order for our son to develop a strong connection to the Jewish faith. I only needed to look at my own extended family to see what a lack of positive religious experiences did to a person’s desire to continue to be observant when they reached adulthood. A Jewish relative, who inmarried, observed the holidays out of obligation and not because he derived any fulfillment from the experience.

My husband and I believed that by increasing the fun quotient of holidays when our son was young we could make the celebrations more memorable, without diminishing their significance. We felt this was especially important for an interfaith family because by creating positive Jewish experiences year-round, we avoided the need to pack a full year’s worth of Jewish identity building into December.

So, we spiced up our Passover observance. When our son was a toddler, we read Passover children’s books and sang the holiday songs learned in preschool. We told the story of the Exodus using a Shalom Sesame coloring book. I photocopied the pages and let the kids at our seder color them while the adults read the story. We read Sammy Spider’s First Passover and Dinosaur on Passover instead of reading a traditional Haggadah. We used a child-friendly seder printed from the Internet. As our son got older, we watched the many Passover parodies on YouTube.

We didn’t worry that how we told the Passover story was unconventional. After all, we were simply commanded to tell the story. Contrary to what Jewish parents of a certain generation thought, there was no rule to how it was told. A Haggadah wasn’t required nor did a seder need to be the same as our mothers’ or mother-in-laws’. We were free to do what we wanted.

As you get ready for Passover, think about how you can create happy memories by celebrating the holiday in a slightly different way. Work to nurture your child’s connection to Judaism so that it will be the foundation for observance later in life. Use a less traditional approach to connect members of your family from different backgrounds to the holiday. Remember the words of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the editor of the Mishna (Jewish Oral Law codified about 200 CE.), “For only the lesson enjoyed is the lesson learned.”

Below are a few suggestions for injecting some creativity into your Passover celebration. Use them or come up with your own.

  • Introduce nontraditional elements into you ritual. Watch Passover-themed parodies of popular songs. Distribute toy plagues to all guests. Read a children’s book. Draw parallels between the Exodus and contemporary life – political and personal.
  • Sing or play contemporary children’s and Jewish Passover music–go beyond Dayenu. Check out The Maccabeats, The Fountainheads, ShirLaLa Passover, and Six13.
  • Make matzah pyramids and decorate them gingerbread-house-style.
  • Tape bubble wrap to the floors and let kids and adults run and jump on it to simulate the hail plague.
  • Do a Passover science experiment–place different types of red liquids/wet ingredients in bowls (water dyed red with food coloring, red paint and strawberry yogurt, etc.). Give each child a straw. Ask them to “part” the Red Seas by blowing into the straw over each bowl. Which liquid is easier to move or part? How does the density of the liquid affect movement? If the Red Sea was made of a thick liquid how easy or hard would it have been to cross? Would the Israelites have escaped the Egyptians?
  • Play Passover bingo and other games. See Jewish Holidays in a Box for ideas.
  • Introduce new foods to the meal. Food is an easy way to honor different backgrounds. Serve a dish that is respectful of Passover dietary rules, but a traditional part of a family member’s or guest’s Easter dinner. Celebrate the ethnic background of those at your table by including Passover dishes from the cultures represented at your seder. Look at the cookbook Entrée to Judaism for ideas.
  • Borrow from the Easter bunny. Eggs are a symbol of Passover and Easter. Have an afikomen egg hunt. Break the afikomen into small pieces. Place the pieces inside plastic colored-eggs used for Easter baskets. Hide the afikomen-filled eggs. Have the children search for them. Give out Passover candy as prizes.

 

Raising Strong Girls, Telling the Purim (and Passover) Stories

  

Mother and daughter readingBefore I had daughters, I had a pretty clear idea of how I wanted to raise them.  I had been raised with what I considered exceptional feminist ideals, and I planned to do a knock-out job of solidifying my future daughters’ self-image as strong, powerful human beings who could do anything they wanted, for whom gender would be an afterthought.

Of course, as many women more prolific and eloquent than I have written, this is unfortunately still very difficult work and, as I have now found, a lot easier in premeditation than in implementation with actual living daughters. Still, I am trying my very best to both be a model for my girls and to intercept the stimuli coming at them to help them interpret it toward positive self-image development.

I share this as a context for my thinking about this year’s spring holidays. Our family had a very fun Purim. It can be a wonderful holiday, full of jubilant storytelling, costuming and fun. After all, it is a holiday in which we are instructed to party. It celebrates a great triumph – the salvation of our people – with a strong female hero.

But the Purim story is also complicated, and this year I felt these complications as I dwelled on how my girls will learn the story as they grow.  There is so much for them to learn from Esther about her great courage, her strategic thinking and her triumph. Simultaneously, there are some real doozies in the story. Esther wins her place by the king’s side not through a respectful, loving courtship, but through a beauty contest. To varying degrees, King Ahasuerus, Haman and Vashti are all sizably complex and challenging for children and adults alike.

I couldn’t take it all on this year, but I tried to start with Vashti. When I was growing up, Vashti was portrayed as a villain, but her primary villainous act was refusing to entertain her husband’s guests on demand. Regardless of what more dynamic layers were beneath the surface in their relationship, on its face this is a pretty bad precedent for my girls’ future empowerment. So how was Ruthie learning about Vashti, and how could I help her reinterpret the traditional storyline?

Ruthie’s class spent three weeks studying Purim. I asked her what she thought about Vashti. She said she thought she was OK. She just didn’t want to dance for the king, which wasn’t a big deal to Ruthie. She told me that King Ahasuerus and Vashti didn’t agree, so they decided to live in different places. That’s pretty good for a start. Later in life, we can talk about how if Ruthie and a future partner have a disagreement, they should try to talk about it and work it out together. But as a baseline, we got a chance to explore together that a woman never needs to do something just because her partner tells her she has to, and that it is OK to leave if you don’t feel safe.

Purim is not unique in its depth of complexities. The ability to interpret, reinterpret and struggle with these stories is part of what makes Judaism so rich. This year’s processing of the Purim story has emboldened me as I approach Passover, the ultimate story-telling holiday. The Passover story orbits around Moses and Aaron, but there are some very dynamic and important women in the story. I am looking forward to sharing Miriam’s story with Ruthie, for having Chaya be the one to put the orange on our seder plate, and for trying to get to know Pharoah’s daughter a little better this year.

I plan to have a lot of years to explore these stories with my daughters, both for the parts which we will carry with us and which we will leave in the Biblical past. I’m looking forward to our next stop, sitting around the seder table together.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

  

ball-87867_1280Last year, in the “Community Voices” section of my local paper there was a column written by a woman about the proliferation of yard signs in her neighborhood proclaiming “God lives here!” She said that often the behavior of her neighbors displaying these signs was far from divine.

Recently, I recalled this column as I noticed the “He is Risen!” crosses beginning to appear in my neighbors’ yards. I knew many of these people held close their belief in Jesus and acted as he did–they reached out to families new to the area, they befriended the friendless and cared for the weak. But others, behaved in ways that weren’t really in line with Jesus’s actions.

They argued with each other about the cutting down of dead bushes between properties, escalating the fight to the point where lawsuits were threatened. They disregarded neighborhood speed limits and drove at dangerously high speeds when children were leaving for school in the morning. They failed to clean up after their pets but got angry when others left their dog’s waste in the park. They fought about who should and should not have access to neighborhood common areas and green spaces.

But residents with crosses on their lawns weren’t the only ones acting in ways that were inconsistent with their religion’s values. A number of people with mezuzahs on their doors behaved similarly. Neither Jesus nor Moses would have been particularly proud.

While I was bemoaning the unneighborly behavior, I remembered other actions by neighbors that were the embodiment of shared religious values. There was the family that invited a neighbor for dinner when her husband was out of town. A man who found at the gym a water bottle that belonged to a woman from down the street and returned it to her. A young woman who moved in with an older, single woman to care for her. A mom who found a neighbor’s dog that had gotten out and ensured that the pup got home safely. A teen who retrieved my son’s basketball from the pond in our park.

Tattooed and ghoulish looking, and dressed in dark clothes, the teenager appeared to be an unlikely savior. Yet, he turned out to be the personification of loving-kindness.

As my son and I struggled to find a way to get his ball that was moving further towards the middle of the lake, the teen approached with a friend. Our dog went up to them hoping to get a pat. We said hello and returned to trying to get the ball. Suddenly, the male teen walked into the cold, murky pond toward the ball. It was then that we noticed his shoes on the bank and his rolled-up pants. He grabbed the basketball and returned it to my son.

For a moment, we were speechless. My son and I thanked him over and over, and asked if there was something we could do to show our appreciation. The only thing the teen wanted in return was to pet our dog for a minute. Then he and his friend walked away. I was certain we had just encountered Elijah.

According to Jewish legend, the prophet Elijah, who is destined to wander the earth as a heavenly messenger, appears to individuals in many guises. He arrives to guard the sick and newborn and to help the hopeless dressed as a beggar, scoundrel, peasant and now, possibly, a goth teenager. He reminds us not to judge someone’s godliness by his or her appearance or a symbol on a lawn or door. Rather, he shows us that a person’s goodness and adherence to the principles of their faith is revealed through deeds.

After lamenting the ungodly behavior of her neighbors, the writer of the “Community Voices” essay, said that God did live in her neighborhood through the right actions performed by some of the area’s residents. She said, “Deeds outrank yard signs.” The encounter with the would-be Elijah provided a similar reminder for my son and me–actions trump dress.

This Passover, when you open your door for Elijah, think about how you and your family can walk in the prophet’s ways. Then do it, because actions speak louder than words.