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Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday because it is mostly about storytelling. Every year, my family sits around the Passover table and tells the story of how the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt by blindly following Moses across the Red Sea. The story is about freedom, faith and most of all, food. We eat matzah (unleavened bread) to symbolize the unleavened bread the Jews took with them on their long journey through the desert. We clean our houses and get rid of every last trace of bread. Then, my mother calls me 68 times about the Passover menu. In my head, I picture all the Jewish mothers in Egypt during Mosesâ€™ time asking, â€śChicken, brisket or both?â€ť But what Iâ€™ve always loved the most about Passover at my motherâ€™s house was the kidsâ€™ table. It is the table I was always a part of until only recently. Now, thereâ€™s a new kidsâ€™ table and its guests include my daughter Helen and her two cousins (my brotherâ€™s boys), Jacob and Nathan.
I didnâ€™t realize this phenomenon about the kidsâ€™ table until I brought over my half of the Passover menu in aluminum pans an hour before the seder. Adrian, my significant other who grew up in Mexico as a Catholic, pointed it out when he carried our daughter into my motherâ€™s house. â€śMy Mom used to do that at Christmas,â€ť Adrian remarked when he saw one long table in my motherâ€™s living room and the mini table at the end set with three kiddie plastic plates and spoons. Adrian comes from a family of seven kids and he loved my motherâ€™s rendition of a kidâ€™s table, which made him nostalgic. His family is scattered across the globe and his one dream is to have everyone go back to Mexico to sit at his motherâ€™s table on a big Catholic holiday. But this year, Adrian was part of the Passover festivities even though he couldnâ€™t totally grasp matzah.
â€śIt tastes like paper,â€ť he said.
â€śYes,â€ť I replied, â€śthatâ€™s the point. We suffered in Egypt and then we suffered with matzah.â€ť
The kidsâ€™ table signified so much to me this year. For the first time in maybe 50 years, my uncle missed the Passover seder because heâ€™s sick and my aunt couldnâ€™t come either. My cousins were also absent. Usually, our Passover table is set for 15-18 people, but this year, it dwindled down to seven adults and three kids. This made me afraid because my brother was in charge of running the seder and I was in charge of half the cookingâ€”it made me realize that the original Passover kidsâ€™ table was now the adultsâ€™ table.
My mother is getting older and I am trying to balance old traditions with new interfaith beliefs. Adrian and I are trying to show Helen that two cultures and two faiths can coexist and we are trying to do this by example. But sometimes, I still feel like a kid. Sometimes we donâ€™t have all the answers and there are times that even when I make 22 chicken legs, the guests only eat the brisket. â€śI told you so,â€ť I hear my Jewish ancestors whisper.
My nephews, who are twin boys, came in like a hurricane. They love Helen and arrived shouting â€śHelen, Helen, Helen!â€ť When they saw my mother, who always brings them the challah bread and chicken noodle soup, they began to shout, â€śChallah, challah, challah!â€ť But on Passover, we canâ€™t eat challah or noodle soup, so they learned instead to shout, â€śMatzah, matzah, matzah!â€ť And then continued with, â€śAdi! Adi! Adi!â€ť for Adrian, their favorite uncle.
I marveled at the kidsâ€™ table for its differences and its similarities. This year, as my nephews speak English, Helen answers in Spanish. â€śNo se,â€ť she says, which means, â€śI donâ€™t know,â€ť and the boys laugh. But they look just as my brother and I had once looked. The only difference is that this Passover, like all future Passovers, there will be room for more than one faith. Adrian sits at the table and is reminded of Catholic holidays in Mexico, I sit at the table and am reminded of my father and how he, too, loved a good story.
The traditional Jewish four questions, to be asked by the youngest child at the table, are sung by everyone, in Hebrew. â€śWhy is this night different from any other night?â€ť begin the questions. I laugh because I want to look up at God and say, â€śSeriously?â€ť But instead, I think of a proverb appropriate for this Passover from the New Testament: â€śGet rid of the old leaven of sin so that you may be a new batch of dough â€“ as you really are.â€ť (Bible, I Corinthians 5:7) This quote gives me hope for the future and urges me to shed my old skin and step into my new real one of woman, mother and two-faith-household-builder.
There are times in life when weâ€™re in the zone. Weâ€™re so involved in performing or participating in an activity that we get lost in the experience. Other times, weâ€™re more of a participant-observer. Weâ€™re engaged in the action or event, but we have enough distance from what is happening that we can study or reflect on what is going on at the moment.
I had a participant-observer experience at the Passover Seder we attended this year. We celebrated the first night of the holiday at our friendâ€™s house. We met this family when we first moved to Dallas. The wife and I were in a Mommy & Me class together at the JCC. We were kindred spirits and both intermarried Jewish women raising Jewish children with the support of our not Jewish husbands. We became close friends quickly and navigated the joys and challenges of intermarriage and observed holidays together.
Over the years, our families had celebrated Passover with each other so many times that we had a holiday routine. We read a Haggadah for young families. The adults and kids ate at separate tables. The same friends and family filled the seats. But this year there were several changes to our typical ritual. We graduated to a Haggadah for families with elementary and middle school age children. The adults and kids sat together at one long table in my friendâ€™s living room. There were new faces seated among the usual suspects.
Maybe those changes made me listen more carefully and observe more closely, or maybe I was simply more attentive on that particular evening. Whatever the reason for my heightened awareness, I saw several things that made this Passover different from others. I noticed that a regular Seder attendee, who brought her new boyfriend, was more relaxed and contented than she was in years past. I noted the good behavior of a usually mischievous young guest. I marveled at my husbandâ€™s and my friendâ€™s husbandâ€™s Hebrew skills.
It was this last observation that grabbed me the most. How had I not noticed before how well both of these men pronounced and enunciated Hebrew words? Was this facility with Hebrew new or had it been there for a while, and I missed it?
After more than a decade of living a Jewish life, I knew that my husband and my friendâ€™s husband could recite, in Hebrew, most of the Friday evening Shabbat blessings. And I knew my husband had participated in Havdalah enough times that he could sing the prayers. But the Hebrew words that were part of their assigned Haggadah readings werenâ€™t familiar. Yes, there was transliteration. But transliteration was a pronunciation, not enunciation, tool. These guys pronounced the Hebrew clearly and crisply with the right emphasis.
Maybe the language skills of my husband and my friendâ€™s husband stood out to me because of how different they were from many of the Jewish guests. Both husbands read the transliterated Hebrew with confidence. Many of the Jewish participants read the Hebrew hesitantly, mispronouncing words and using incorrect articulation. Several times during the Haggadah reading, these guests acknowledged that they had not done much Jewishly since their bar or bat mitzvah.
The scenario demonstrated how repeated exposure to Hebrew and frequent involvement in Jewish life can positively affect Jewish fluency regardless of someoneâ€™s religious background. It also highlighted why the usual rhetoric about intermarriedsâ€”they are less likely to raise Jewish children or associate themselves with Jewish practiceâ€”isnâ€™t universally true. Rather, it illustrated how a focus on engaging interfaith families benefits Judaism.
As the children at our Seder recited the Four Questions, a fifth question came to mind. Ma Nishtantah? Why are Jewishly active interfaith families different from other Jewish families? The answer: regular engagement with Judaism.
This post originally appeared on Jane’s Interfaith and Jewish blog.
If 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 â€śFrogs here! Frogs there! Frogs were jumping everywhere.â€ť Maybe there was a kidsâ€™ 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 canâ€™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 didnâ€™t wanted his childhood memories of faith to be the same as my husbandâ€™s or mineâ€“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 personâ€™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 yearâ€™s worth of Jewish identity building into December.
So, we spiced up our Passover observance. When our son was a toddler, we read Passover childrenâ€™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 Spiderâ€™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 didnâ€™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 wasnâ€™t required nor did a seder need to be the same as our mothersâ€™ or mother-in-lawsâ€™. 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 childâ€™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.), â€śFor only the lesson enjoyed is the lesson learned.â€ť
Below are a few suggestions for injecting some creativity into your Passover celebration. Use them or come up with your own.