Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
Recently, my older daughter Laurel was pretending that her father and I were guests at her house, and we were helping to take care of her while her parents were out at a meeting. She showed me the kitchen, and suggested I might want to make mac n’ cheese for her and her baby sister. Over dinner, she decided to talk about her family.
“I am Jewish, and my daddy is Jewish, so we just celebrated Passover,” she said.
“Oh, that must have been fun,” I replied.
“Yeah, it was tons of fun!”
“What other holidays do you celebrate?” I asked, curious to hear how she might answer.
“We also celebrate Hanukkah, of course,” she continued, “but we have Christmas too,” she said, “because my mommy is Christian.”
“Oh, really?” I replied. “That’s interesting. I think your mommy told me once that she actually is more of a Unitarian Universalist,” I clarified, thinking fast. Well, UUs historically were Christian, but today, many UUs wouldn’t call themselves Christian, for a variety of reasons, not least because they can’t quite accept some of the central tenets of Christianity. Oh, ack, what do I say! I’m much more of a cultural Christian, I suppose, since I was raised in the Episcopalian church, but, but, but… how do I explain this in one sentence, to a 5-year-old!
I continued to play along with the conversation. “I suppose your mommy is sort of Christian. She’s a very, very liberal Christian,” I added. “And she celebrates Christmas, yes.” Perhaps it would be best to save explanations of nineteenth-century doctrinal changes for a few years, I thought.
When my husband Ben and I first started dating, one of our first outings as a couple was to hear Harvey Cox speak on his book about raising a Jewish child, Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year. We’d only been dating for a few weeks, so attending this event seemed kind of significant, and definitely nerve-wracking. What I learned, though, was that Cox and his wife, who is Jewish, decided to raise their son Jewish because of matrilineal descent. When it came to Christmas and other Christian holidays, they would simply tell him that those were his father’s holidays.
This sounded like simple enough advice, and something to think more about.
I now know that this suggestion is hardly quite so simple, and that questions of identity will look different for different children as they age.
When Ben and I started to discuss marriage, it also seemed simple to decide that our children, if we were blessed with any, would be Jewish. Or at least that’s how I remember the conversation going. We’d just gotten engaged a couple of days earlier, and were sitting on the old green futon that functioned as our first couch back in the grad-school days. I told Ben, “I’ve been thinking about this, and since Judaism has an ethnic component to it, as well as a religious one, I think our kids should be raised Jewish.”
I remember the surprise, and the happiness, that I saw in his eyes. “Really? You’d do that? Because Reform Judaism accepts patrilineal descent,” he told me, “meaning that Judaism can pass through the father as well as the mother. I’m so glad you’re open to this!”
Our ketubah, which we wrote ourselves almost a year after getting engaged, seems to imply a different intention. I’ve just looked at it hanging there in our living room now, and it clearly expresses our desire to create a home that honors our Jewish and Unitarian Universalist heritages, one that, should we be blessed with children, would “honor justice, respect diversity, love the holy, and make whole the world.” This phrase rather nicely sums up what Ben and I hold most dear, theologically speaking, but nowhere does it say we’re going to raise our children as solely Jewish!
That’s funny, I find myself thinking. I thought we’d agreed to raise our kids Jewish? Didn’t I tell Ben that I agreed that we should raise Jewish children?
Or did I mean that I wanted to be sure they had a Jewish identity, even if that identity is only one of the labels a child might choose? After all, we have two Christmas-celebrating Jewish children, children who receive Easter cards each spring from still-confused relatives, children who this year participated gleefully in their first Easter-egg hunt.
At least, it sounds confusing to me. I’m not sure it’s confusing to our older daughter. It’s simply who she is. Just a couple of weeks ago, she was proud to share a box of matzah with her class at school, and on the way home that day, she told me, “I’m the only Jewish kid in my school.” I’m not sure that’s quite numerically true of the school, even if it is of her classroom. However, what rings more true than a statistic is the extent to which, at this point, Laurel clearly considers herself to be Jewish—and whether she’d say it this way or not, she knows, too, that it’s not quite that simple.
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.
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.
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.
Tu Bishvat starts on Tuesday night. It is a really beautiful holiday; a new year for the trees. It is a time to think about the earth, and to celebrate the many ways it nourishes us. It is also a good time to think about Israel, a place where it might actually be reasonable to plant a tree right now (as opposed to my snow-covered backyard).
A little more than a year ago, I wrote a blog post about trying to teach Ruthie conservation, and the importance of saving water. I am happy to report that a year later, Ruthie has developmentally hit a place where when we tell her to turn off the tap because she is wasting water, she seems to understand, and will usually oblige. But just as Ruthie has turned this corner, Chaya has entered the age of “I do it.” While I have one daughter on board with conservation, I have another entering the era of the uphill battle to conserve.
In my unscientific observation of children Chaya’s age (2.5), they are fascinated by running water. Turning the faucet gives them a power to create, at a time in their lives when they are both dependent on bigger people to do most things for them and also discovering their own power to interact with the world. A light switch provides a similar fascination, especially as an activity where you make the lights go on and off for minutes on end. And paper goods, the kinds that as an adult I try to use thoughtfully, sparingly when possible, provide endless possibilities for creativity and creation.
There are reasons for using these things that I want to encourage as a parent. It is flu season, for goodness sake, and it is great if Chaya can learn how to make hand-washing a part of her routine. I would like to engender a habit where Chaya is turning on lights when they are needed, and turning them off when she is done. And while I don’t want the whole roll of toilet paper on the floor, I sure do want her to use it in moderation when she needs it.
If taking care of the world weren’t a huge concern of mine (which it is) and these commodities were in endless supply, I would have a different take on all of this. I want Chaya to feel comfortable exploring her independence and to learn to do a few things for herself. I understand that sometimes you need to experiment, to use a little more or a little less of what you need in order to figure out the best way to do something. But because there are limits to the commodities that we take from the earth, I cringe when I see Chaya trying to perform this experimentation with a running faucet. This can be confusing for both of us, since often times, just a minute before I may have complimented her about using the same amount of time and thought to experiment with how to put on a pair of pants by herself or complete a puzzle.
I think the answer is to give her a chance at a conserving behavior, and then take over and redirect her when it is clear she is not going to make an earth-friendly choice. But I also know that toddlers like the safety of reliable rules, and so even though I may do that, I feel a little badly about sending a complex message about when experimentation is OK. So I don’t have an answer, only a lot of mixed feelings. And a hope that she will learn this lesson by watching rather than doing, so that the earth can be in better shape for the generation that proceeds hers.
The other day, Ruthie and I were talking about one of her favorite topics—her cousins. She ticked off each one’s name, and talked about something special about them, or what they did the last time they were together. Then she started talking about some friends who are like family—she often brings up this topic of what to call her friends who are like family but who aren’t blood relatives. In speaking about two sisters in particular from a family that we often celebrate Jewish holidays with, she changed the subject a little bit.
“So,” she asked me, “which one of their parents wasn’t Jewish when they met, the mom or the dad?”
“Actually,” I told her, “they both were Jewish when they met.”
“Oh,” she said, and kept talking.
This was not a monumental question to her, but it gave me pause. Neither good nor bad, but it gave me pause. To her, the question was completely logical. First of all, there was no judgment in it. It wasn’t good or bad if they were or weren’t Jewish, it was just a normal question to her about families.
In Ruthie’s Jewish family (my side), most of the pairings in my generation are interfaith. In fact, of my three siblings and six first cousins, only one person has married someone from a Jewish background. This does not stand in the way of our lighting Hanukkah candles together or sharing the Passover seder. What’s more, an openness to mixed faith couplings has brought seven fantastic people into our family, seven more adults who nurture and support our foursome.
Because of this, Ruthie really hasn’t been exposed to the idea that being Jewish necessitates having two Jewish parents. It is just not part of how she understands her identity. While I spend time every month blogging about navigating a somewhat new path in embracing multiple forms of Jewish identity, Ruthie thinks our family is completely ordinary within our religious community.
When she asked the question, my mind started embracing the 21st century outlook for interfaith families. I went to an exciting place: That maybe because of the work of community leaders, generous rabbis, individual families who choose love and acceptance and, of course, InterfaithFamily, our girls won’t ever know to feel different. They will know that we are Jewish through our actions. As they grow up they will understand that they have a choice about spirituality and connection to a religious community. If we are successful, the girls will understand that our goal as parents was to show them our choice, in the hopes that they’ll love it, but also in the hopes that they understand the benefits of choosing to make space for these connections in their adult lives.
Another interpretation might be that Ruthie is 6. I wasn’t raised in an interfaith family myself, so for all I know every 6-year-old thinks that all families must be like their own, religiously or otherwise. Perhaps 6-year-olds with interfaith parents have been asking this question for generations; I have just never encountered their stories.
So, earth shattering or not, I have a new inspiration. To hold onto the kernel of celebration that I felt in that moment. To hold onto the idea that I can raise my girls in an environment where their Jewish identity is about our actions, and not about a rule that would prohibit the loving home Eric and I have created as a couple. To create a place where they can relish the heritage they carry on through the multiple traditions from both sides of their families, but also firmly choose a path of spirituality and connection that is personally fulfilling to them. And, ideally, to imagine a time that feels not that far off when being interfaith will be an important part of how we understand, respect and love our extended family, but won’t be a significant facet of our Jewishness.
This is a blog about a different kind of December dilemma. It is not about whether my family should have a tree–we do–or hang a wreath on our door–we do not. It is not about whether we recognize Christmas in our home or only at my not Jewish in-laws–we celebrate a secular holiday in both locations. This is about whether I should tell my Jewish friends before they visit my home during the holiday season that we have a Christmas tree.
Before becoming engaged in Jewish outreach, I did not think much about the intense feelings Christmas decorations and symbols aroused in Jews and I never felt resentful or alien or like an outsider during the holiday season. I was raised in a Jewish home with a Christmas tradition that included a tree. My family drove around looking at holiday lights and went to New York City to view the tree in Rockefeller Center and the Christmas displays in the windows of the stores on Fifth Avenue.
It was only after I became active in outreach work and participated in December Dilemma programs that I realized how reviled the Christmas tree and holiday decorations were by Jews. During the first December discussion I attended, I remember a man becoming agitated when he was asked to articulate his feelings about the Christmas tree image on the screen in the front of the room.
At another program, a woman who’s son had intermarried said she told him that a home could not really be Jewish if it had a Christmas tree. The son and his not Jewish wife were raising Jewish children and the tree was the only recognition of the wife’s former traditions. Still the Jewish mother would not enter her son’s house when the tree was up.
These incidences made me realize just how uncomfortable some Jews were with decorations associated with Christmas–even ones that were considered more of a beloved custom than a religious symbol. I decided that since I did not know how our inmarried Jewish friends felt about Christmas trees in Jewish homes I would tell them that we had one before they came to my house during the holiday season. Then they could prep their kids before they arrived, be prepared to answer their children’s questions or decline the invitation.
I would not apologize for how we celebrated the holiday or honored my husband’s holiday tradition. I would simply tell visitors what to expect when they walked into my house–a big tree with lights and decorations. If asked, I would explain the many Jewish religious or cultural symbols–Stars of David, menorahs, dreidels, mezuzahs, yads and hamsas–that we had as ornaments.
I do not know if the tree really bothered any of our friends. To date, no one has ever declined an invitation to our house because of it. Some have asked if they could help decorate the tree. Others did not respond to my declaration in any way.
I assume that some of our friends refrain from sharing their discomfort because they fear that they might offend us and I appreciate that they are willing to respect our celebration even if they do not agree with it. I hope that by seeing how our tree reflects our Jewish identity and honors my husband’s commitment to a Jewish home that they will be more accepting of the nuances inherent in interfaith family life. They might even begin to see the Christmas tree as just a tree.
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
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!).
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.
Last year, Hanukkah came early (remember that once in every 77,000 years Thanksgivukkah Celebration?). Back then, I blogged about how the early Hanukkah was a special gift for interfaith families, allowing those of us who are a union of Christian and Jewish traditions to more easily separate the December holidays and focus on each individually.
This year is a bit more typical, with Hanukkah starting on December 16 and ending on Christmas Eve. With six weeks to go before we dust off the Hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah), I think we have just enough time to keep December from being a dilemma. Like many things in parenting, and life, your best chance to make this happen is to start planning now.
The December holidays are a wonderful time. The lights, be they candles in our windows or lights around our trees, are beautiful. The music is joyful, and the food is both plentiful and sweet. Families and friends are together in celebration, filling homes, street corners and hearts with love and togetherness. The themes of our holidays remind us about some of religion’s most important lessons – faith, hope and the potential for miracles.
The December holidays can also be challenging. Expectations are high, and as parents we are often harried in our attempts to make magic for our children. Feelings of loss sting a bit more strongly for those of us missing a loved one, or out-of-touch with someone with whom we’d like to be in touch. With Christmas movies at the box office and schoolyard chatter a flurry with talk of gifts to be received, there can be a special tension for those of us whose families try to integrate multiple traditions.
I imagine that even if you and your spouse grew up next door to one another, going to the same house of worship and marrying after a long high school courtship, you can find yourselves mismatched in your expectations for December. For interfaith couples of any stripe, these mismatched expectations can be amplified. And for parents for whom being of different faiths doesn’t feel like a big deal from January to November, December puts their different backgrounds front and center. Even if you stand firmly grounded in your personal choices about religion, your kids are bound to throw you off base with a question about why you do or don’t do the same thing as another family they know.
Today, I would like to advocate that you make a plan. It does not need to take up all of November, but better an hour of planning in November than four hours of frustration in December. Here is what I propose.
Buy a bottle of wine. Or better yet, call a sitter. Carve out an hour of time with your partner to talk about what your Hanukkah through Boxing Day calendar will look like, and what you’d like it to be. If you’re not sure, look around your community or online for articles, classes or friends who can help you plan to make the time a period of fun, giving, relaxation and maybe even a little learning.
Some questions that I have seen come up for our family and others during this time, in case you don’t know where to start:
Do that, and then call your own parents. Talk to them about what they hope for, and share what your own hopes are. If you can’t do that, at least share your feelings with whomever will help make the holiday spirit bright for your family.
And then have fun. Eradicate the dilemma from your December, and bring on the holiday cheer. And let me know how it all works out.
Shavuot came at an interesting time in our parenting journey this year. In addition to cheese blintzes, the main event on Shavuot is a commemoration of when the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments and the Torah. It is a holiday to renew our commitment to the Torah, to study on the Ten Commandments, and to celebrate the many stories and mitzvot that the Torah contains. This celebration of the rules that G-d gave to us at Mt. Sinai fell at a time when the role of rules in our family is at the forefront of our interactions.
At 5, Ruthie is in a period where her primary developmental focus is to test the boundaries of the world around her. This manifests itself in a constant engagement with Mom and Dad’s rules, as she uses her (of course exceptional) intellect to try to sneak around rules, to push the boundaries set out for her, and sometimes to ram head-first against a decree that Eric and I think is completely non-negotiable. As we try to support her through a series of transitions–the end of the school year, the beginning of an unknown summer camp, and the anticipation of kindergarten–what I hear in her words is a complete disdain for rules, but what I see in her behavior is a need for structure even more than she’s needed before.
So in the middle of a somewhat involved parenting moment, Shavuot rolled around. I was lucky to take the girls to two wonderful Tot Shabbat services the week before and after Shavuot, where they (and I) got two different perspectives on how to celebrate the holiday. And my mind was soaking it all up, particularly when we talked about the Ten Commandments. I spent a lot of the week of Shavuot thinking about those rules, and about what they provided to the Jewish people. While the commandments are not simple to follow, they are reasonable. They give us a framework to use in relating to one another and to G-d, and a lens for understanding “right” and “wrong.” For the most part, they do not confine our every movement, but they do give us enough direction to frame the way we interact with the world.
So Shavuot seemed like a great way to hit a reset button and try to redefine the role of rules in our family. A wonderful parenting expert recommended to us that we rein in the rule-pushing by restarting with a set of family rules that the four of us make together. The weekend after Shavuot, Ruthie, Chaya, Eric and I sat down to make 10 family rules.
They are not exactly like the Ten Commandments, in that they did not come from G-d, or even from a single authority figure, but they came from all of us thinking collectively, in our case an important step for helping Ruthie feel like she has a role in defining her world. Unlike the Ten Commandments, they are not steadfast–they reflect a moment in time, and hopefully we can conquer these 10 as we all have some mastery and our family changes.
But they do apply equally to all of us, just like the Ten Commandments. And I hope that they show Ruthie that rules do not confine her every movement, but provide enough direction to guide her in interacting with the world, and hopefully even to find a feeling of safety within that. And for us, Shavuot marks a new start on rules, just as it has for the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years.
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.
As 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.
When I was 17, my family hosted a French exchange student. Isabel had never spent any significant time in the US, and our job was to make her feel at home and to introduce her to American culture. I think we did a pretty good job, engaging her in the hustle and bustle of the life of a family of five, dragging her to school plays and track meets, hitting all of the sightseeing hot spots we could fit in during the short time that she was with us. But I always felt like we gave her an exaggerated view of how Americans celebrate Valentine’s Day, since the Berman Family Valentine’s Day is a far cry from the typical card-and-a-box-of-chocolates event. Every year, on February 14, I smile when I remember Isabel’s bewildered look as my mother entered our paper-heart-filled dining room with the Valentine’s cake, the grand finale of a day filled with fanfare for all of us.
Valentine’s Day is not a Jewish tradition, but as it is observed in the US it seems far enough away from its roots to be mostly non-religious. As I understand it, St. Valentine was actually one (or more) Christian saints, and there are some Christians who observe a special feast or mass. The Valentine’s Day we recognize in the US is an amalgamation based on a little Ancient Roman and Christian tradition, bird-mating season, a few great poems, and the business savvy of a bunch of greeting card companies. In my house growing up, it was a reason to celebrate.
My mother loved a good party. She lost her father at age 19 and carried with her a deep understanding of the fragility of life. This motivated her to seize every opportunity to celebrate life. She also was a perpetual crafter, and any holiday that involved scissors, glue and paint was for her. So Mom was in on Valentine’s Day. And having Isabel as a visitor only motivated her to make 1994 more special.
So Isabel’s first American Valentine’s Day went a little something like this: We woke up to a breakfast table set with Valentine-themed paper goods, and a gift bag at each seat. The bags were filled with cards, candies, socks, some goofy tchotchke to put on our dressers, and one gift picked out just for the recipient. Mom had on heart-shaped earrings, and we were encouraged by example to deck out our outfits with holiday-themed embellishments. Mom had probably labored with at least one, if not all four of us, to put together Valentine’s for our friends – homemade chocolate lollipops or personalized cards. When we got home from school that day, the dining room was set for a formal dinner, with some heart-shaped confetti on the table and construction paper hearts spread hanging from the chandelier. We sat down to a dinner that was unusually polished for a school night, and dinner concluded with the cake. A beautiful, heart-shaped cake with pink frosting, set on the table with a grand presentation from Mom.
Incidentally, that year I had my first Valentine’s Day date (after cake, of course). But that was a minor happening in the day’s festivities.
When we become parents, we have a chance to choose which of the traditions our parents gave to us we want to make our own, which we might make special events between grandparents and kids, and which we let slip away. Now that my mother is gone, this choice feels even more complicated, as some days, like Valentine’s Day, I feel pressure to be both Mom and Grandma for my girls. When special days approach, I find myself in the aisle at a gift store, contemplating spending more than usual on something that only my Mom would buy for them, or worried on the eve of Valentine’s Day that the decorations just aren’t living up to her memory.
I know many people who hate Valentine’s Day. They feel it is a “Hallmark Holiday” that encourages needless spending. They hate how restaurants bloat their prices, and how crowded and unromantic that evening out can be. They feel it creates too much stress about being in a relationship, or if they are in a relationship, they feel it creates unnecessary stress to make a grand gesture.
But I love it for all of the reasons that my mother was trying to get through to me. By making it a family holiday, Mom made it about crafts, about food, about a break from thinking about snow and ice, about spreading joy. The love we celebrated was between people, some of them married or coupled, and some of them not. I love having an official Valentine, and having an excuse to tell Eric about how I love him. But I also think back happily on the years I was single and friends and I would enjoy cocktails together, stuffing quarters into the jukebox in our favorite bar, or the years my best friend and I would put goofy off-color poems into each other’s lockers.
That night in high school, when I saw Isabel’s puzzled face, I leaned over to her and whispered, “This is not normal.” But it was not normal in a completely unobjectionable and totally wonderful way. So I am choosing to make this somewhat exaggerated family lovefest a Boatright tradition, too. Over the weekend our dining room became a craft-making factory, the heart-patterned tablecloth a mess of construction paper, stickers and glitter glue. We had a wonderful celebration with my family, a scrumptious brunch followed with the gift bags Mom taught us to make, and way too much chocolate. And this morning, my breakfast table was set for a special Valentine’s meal. Regardless of the origin of this day, I just can’t pass up a chance to celebrate the gift of another day together.