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.

The Unintended Consequences of Blintzes for Blitzen

The following is a guest post by Emily R. Mace

My Jewish husband and I (a Unitarian Universalist) might not have known what we were getting into when we decided to raise our kids Jewish—but keep celebrating Christmas—my favorite holiday. That was ten years ago. Fast forward five years, to this past January. We took our then-4-year-old daughter to a Tu Bishvat celebration. On the drive there, she kept proclaiming, “It’s the New Year for Christmas trees! I love Christmas trees!” Once we parked the car, we earnestly encouraged our daughter not to mention Christmas trees while at the event, which would involve planting a small bit of greenery (which turned out to be parsley for the seder plate). She didn’t quite understand why people wouldn’t want to hear about Christmas trees (they’re pretty, and come with presents: What could be wrong with that?), but she trusted us and didn’t mention the possibly offensive greenery.

I’ve since realized that, at the still-tender age of now-5 years old, our daughter is still learning what “religion” is, or to be more precise, what religions are. She knows what holidays are, and her memory is now good enough that she can recall many dazzling and exciting details about both of the upcoming exciting winter holidays: Hanukkah (lighting the menorah! Presents! The dreidel!) and Christmas (Santa! More presents! A pretty tree!).

Emily's family

Emily and her family celebrating Hanukkah

But in her life, these two holidays are part of what’s still a continuous cycle of celebrations, which in our secular-religious American culture involves everything from Thanksgiving, Halloween and Martin Luther King Jr., Day to St. Patrick’s Day, July 4th and Columbus Day. That list doesn’t even include Easter and Christmas, or Passover, the High Holy Days and Hanukkah, but they too belong on her exciting list of yearly liturgical celebrations.

As the not Jewish spouse in our family, I share—but feel ambivalent about—our older daughter’s excitement about Christmas, which she proclaims as happily as she does her Jewish identity. I don’t really want her to want to sit on Santa’s lap, but I know she wants him to bring her presents, just as she wants a present each night when we light our menorah. I’d like to honor the promise I made to my husband before we got married that we’d raise our children in the  Jewish tradition, but I don’t think I understood how children’s own expectations and perspectives about, say, something as pervasive as Christmas, might put an interesting twist on those well-meant decisions. As she gets older (and as her toddler sister grows, too), I know my husband and I will somehow help our children figure out why they shouldn’t mention the Christmas tree at a Tu Bishvat celebration. They will eventually learn that holidays can be secular, national or religious events and that they have different and distinct traditions of origin.

For now, I’m just glad that our daughter is eager to celebrate both traditions. Popular winter holiday books for interfaith children promote this “more the merrier” perspective on the winter holidays. In Blintzes for Blitzen, by Elise Okrend, a hungry reindeer enjoys a tasty Jewish treat during a break in Santa’s annual rounds. In My Two Holidays, by Danielle Novack, a confused schoolboy learns that although his friends celebrate one holiday, he gets to celebrate two. The more the merrier.

Neither book offers a clear perspective on what it means to celebrate two holidays: two distinct religious traditions practiced by one family. Nor do I believe that should be the primary goal of these books. My daughters, even our toddler, experience the wonder and joy of light in a dark time of the year. If they choose to celebrate either holiday, follow either tradition, in their adult years, it will likely be in part because of memories from childhood. If celebrating two holidays creates strong and hopefully happy, memories, then more is merrier indeed. Understanding that these two holidays are from two traditions will come as they each grow older and learn more about the world into which they were born. For now, I look only for the wonder in their eyes.

Emily R. Mace lives outside Chicago, IL, where she is the director of the Harvard Square Library and the co-parent of two young daughters. Follow her on Twitter @lemilym.

Jew Camp

I just loaded my baby on a bus and sent him away for a month.

Ok, I realize it isn’t exactly a month.  It is 4 weeks.  Ok, I realize that it is 2 days shy of 4 weeks.  Yes, you are right, my baby isn’t a baby really… he is a big boy of almost 12.  But, still, I loaded my baby on a bus and sent him a way for a month.

He is going to, what we call, Jew Camp.  We laugh about Jew Camp, because we are the only family in our general area with a kid going to Jew Camp.  We aren’t going to Happy something camp, because we aren’t Christian.  All the kids in our area go to the Happy something camp.  The parents talk to me endlessly about it.  You would think I would be able to remember the name.  I always tune them out and smile sweetly and say, we got camp covered.  One parent persisted in knowing exactly what our plans were, and my daughter looked up at her and said, “We go to Jew Camp.  You can’t come.”  End of conversation. 

As I watch the bus pull out of the parking lot, I know that for many reasons it is the right thing.  First, he loves it.  He loves the activities, the kids, the counselors, everything.  Second, he will come home referring to most things in Hebrew.  He will sing the prayers every night.  He will come home from this experience feeling entirely Jewish.  He will feel like he is part, of as my daughter implied, an exclusive club and it is a pretty awesome club.

My oldest son has many things about him that aren’t like the other kids.  Aside from the fact that he has some special needs that separate him from the others, he is a Jew in a sea of Christianity.  For a month this summer he will be just like everyone else.  When he makes a joke in Hebrew the kids will get it… well if they don’t at least it won’t be because they don’t understand.  When he references Torah and his Bar Mitzvah it won’t be like he is speaking a foreign tongue.  He will be surrounded by other kids and some will understand what it is like to be a Jew in the sea of Christianity.  Many come from a family where one parent is not Jewish.

I am certain that these kids don’t really talk about that sort of stuff.  But, I think they know that the other kids “get” them.  They know that no one is going to give them a hard time because they are not going to see Santa or celebrate Easter.  These kids will all embrace Shabbat and celebrate it as it was meant to be celebrated.  There is a party going on right here and it is all about being Jewish.  Mac comes home from camp feeling love for his Jewishness.  What more could we ask for? 

As I watched my somewhat socially awkward child board the bus without a care in the world, laughing with his friends, I knew in my heart I did the right thing.  He was confident, happy and full of joy.  I realized that I was in fact doing a good job.  We will miss him.

Reality, on a green 3×5 card

As I pulled into the parking lot at the temple, I was amused by the fact that my van, which is being held together by duct tape, string, paper clips and prayer, was parked next to a new Porsche.  The juxtaposition of the two vehicles seemed to represent how I felt about going into my son’s Bar Mitzvah meeting.  I was a little nervous and didn’t feel like I fit in.

I walked in, saw familiar faces, said some hellos, got my folder, sat down and whipped out my knitting.  I knit when I am nervous.  The meeting started right on time (odd, I know).  The Rabbi asked us to introduce ourselves and tell a story about our experience with Bar/Bat Mitzvahs.  I have no story.  The only story I have is the one I am telling you all right now.  Knit, knit, knit.  I messed up the introduction.  Knit, knit, knit. 

The Rabbi begins to go over everything.  He talks about how each ceremony is structured to fit the needs of each child and their family.  I am still knitting, but it is slowing.  I am starting to feel calmer, or maybe the magnitude of the whole event is just so overwhelming that I am in shock, hard to tell.  More talking. Eventually, there is a need for some paper shuffling and I put my knitting away.  I am starting to think this is doable.  Planning is something I am good at.

Just as the calm is beginning to settle in, the dates are handed out.  I am not sure what I expected, but what was printed on that green index card was a shocker for me.  I think I expected that the Bar Mitzvah date would be within a few weeks of my son’s birthday, not almost three months later.  I am sure that the fact that an actual date makes all of this real also contributed.   I was shell-shocked by the information on the card.

I could have requested a date.  I didn’t do that.  I just figured they would give us the right date.  It is two years from now, so really, I don’t have anything scheduled.  When I got the date, all the days that would have been bad flooded my mind.  The anniversary of my father’s death is in the same month as Mac’s bar mitzvah, but it never occurred to me to request it to not be on that date, it was so far away from Mac’s birthday.

While driving home I called a friend and freaked out a bit.  She listened to me go on, and then calmly reminded me that this is G-d’s party and that what will be will be.  The people that are important will be there.  That this is about more than just dates and the potential for blizzards to cause havoc with travel plans.  That in the end, it will be ok, Mac will do great, and everyone who needs to be there will be there.  The people that love him will come.

I asked her to remind me of this over the next two years when I am having some sort of cosmic meltdown.  I also am laying in a goodly supply of yarn, just in case.

Soccer and Sunday School

My kids just walked in the door.  The boys are laughing and retelling stories of their afternoon and laughing some more.  As they grab something to eat, they both agree that they love to go to Religious School.  Assembly was so much fun this week, they tell me.  The Rabbi is hysterical.

Jewish education is part of developing a strong Jewish identity.  I was always uncertain about how the kids would respond to what seemed to me to be “extra” school.  But the Educator does a great job making it fun for everyone.  This is great, because our belief is that unless you are sick, you are going to Religious School.  My husband and I do not generally let the kids miss for social events.

The problem is soccer, which is almost religion in our household.  Our kids play soccer every single day, even in the snow.  They kick the ball in the house, in spite of the fact that I tell them not to kick the ball in the house.  Last winter, our middle son started to play on the local travel team.  The travel team uses fields that are not available on Saturday mornings, so games are generally played on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings.

Can you guess what the conflict is?  Do we as good Jewish parents let our kids miss Religious School to play soccer?  Do we let the one kid who would die on the sword for soccer miss occasionally to do the one thing he truly loves? As the schedules were being determined for the soccer season, we request no practice on Wednesday.  We ask for no games on Sunday mornings.  But this isn’t always feasible.

We agree that it is important for the kids to develop a strong Jewish foundation and going to Religious School is part of creating a Jewish identity, it is also important to consider the whole child.  Right now my kids like to go to Religious School.  They understand the importance of going.  We recognize that “making” them go when they might want to do something else could cause resentment.

Granted it is a slippery slope: miss a day for soccer and another for a play date, what if soccer practices conflict with Wednesday Religious School, everyone is too tired from the week, when does it stop?  We walk a fine line maintaining the importance of obtaining a religious education/identity and living our lives in modern society.  We work hard to keep that balance for our kids.  This Sunday, while our youngest and oldest are in Religious School, our soccer player will be on the soccer pitch stopping goals.  (He promised to study his Hebrew extra hard this week and to get the assignments he will miss so that he will be prepared.)

Introducing Lisa

Greetings interfaith families!

As a Catholic who converted to Judaism three and a half years ago, I thought at first that my family and I had put the “interfaith” part of our religious life behind us. I was raised in an interfaith family—my mother was Catholic and my father at turns Baptist and Methodist—and let’s just say that religion was hotly debated in my childhood home.

My Jewish husband and I are raising our three children—ages 16, 11, and 7—as Jews. I’ve memorized the prayers and figured out how to make latkes. We’re active participants in our interfaith synagogue. I faithfully sat in on my older daughter’s Hebrew lessons and watched with tears in my eyes as she recited her portion at her bat mitzvah. In fact, her bat mitzvah was what finally spurred me to convert. Religious identity, complete at last.

But I’m learning that in reality we will always be interfaith. When my mother died a few months ago after a brief, heartbreaking struggle with cancer, I found myself thrust back decades. Memories of my mother and I attending Mass, going to confession, and saying the rosary together came flooding back. It turns out the language of my grief right now isn’t Jewish—the prayers that pour out of me are Hail Marys and Psalm 23. I tried to say Kaddish to myself in her final moments, but couldn’t remember the words. Our family and friends, Jews and Christians alike, came to my mother’s funeral in a beautiful, old Catholic church on a chilly spring day. My youngest asked what the kneeling pads were for, which came as a weird shock to me. I’m trying to take comfort now in the fact that, as my husband pointed out, my mother is remembered in (at least) three faiths.