Passover Seder with Both Families

By Sam Goodman

 

Won’t you help to sing / These songs of freedom?

We’re currently in the middle of one of the most widely-observed Jewish holidays, Passover.  One of the Shalosh Regalim, or three pilgrimage festivals (literally “three legs”), in ancient times Jews throughout the land of Israel would gather and make sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, and is one of the few holidays mentioned in the Torah.  In modern times, it is observed by abstaining from the consumption of items with leavening (e.g. bread, cake, beer), and with a festive meal on the first two evenings, which is called a seder.

When I was growing up, we would have the first night seder with extended family.  Between grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and my nuclear family, there would be about fifteen of us crowded around the table, hearing Poppop recite the story of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt.  It was always fun running around with the cousins, searching for the afikomen, and staying up way past our normal bedtimes.  We still meet at my uncle’s place every year on the first night, and although lately we’ve had a couple faces missing from the table due to cousins living abroad, or away at college, usually at some point we would Skype them in.  Also, as some of the older cousins have become involved in serious relationships, there have been new guests at the table – including, for the past three years, Anne.

The second night seder had a very different tone than the first night while I was growing up. My two sisters and I would each get to invite one friend, and beyond these three friends, it would just be our nuclear family at the table.  We lived in an area that had very few Jews, so most of our school friends had never been to a seder before.  At the beginning of this seder, we would start by explaining the symbols on the table – the matzah, different items on the seder plate, Elijah’s cup, etc.  Diana, my youngest sister, would start the explanation; Stacey, the middle child, would add things that Diana had forgotten, and provide additional layers of meaning behind the symbols; and I would continue with the things both sisters had left out.

This year, we invited Anne’s parents and siblings to our second-night seder.  As an added twist, my Dad had asked me a few weeks ago if I could lead our seder.  My father, an accountant, was a *bit* exhausted by the night of the second seder, which fell this year on April 15th.  After a few weeks of reviewing the haggadah and the Passover story, I had committed as much as I could to memory, and felt prepared for what was to come.

Anne and I arrived at my parents’ house around 5:30, about half an hour before the seder was to begin.  I wanted some time to settle in, and do some last-minute reviewing of my notes and the biblical Exodus story.  Thanks to some heavy traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway, I ended up having quite a bit of extra time – Anne’s brother Chris showed up around 6:15, and her parents and two youngest siblings didn’t arrive until nearly 7PM.  After some brief greetings, we sat down at the table, and the seder began.

won't you help me sing these songs of freedom?

Passover Seder with Both Families

We began with my retelling the story of the Exodus, beginning with Joseph’s trials and tribulations, culminating in the arrival of the Hebrews in the Promised Land, and hitting all the major high points along the way.  Unfortunately, due to my nerves, I ended up hitting many of the minor points as well, resulting in a retelling that felt as long as Cecil B DeMille’s epic film.  In reality it was probably only 15 minutes, but it felt much longer. At least nobody could say I missed anything important!

After my retelling was complete, we began reading from the haggadah.  After the first cup of wine, my nerves (finally!) began to ease up.  We went popcorn-style around the table, each person reading a paragraph.  As we reached the Four Questions, we broke our order and had Theresa, Anne’s youngest sibling, read them.  We continued along, with Anne’s parents and siblings asking questions as we went. What foods do we “dip”, as mentioned in the Four Questions?  What’s the egg for? Why is the shank bone, rather than another part of the lamb, used to symbolize Passover offering? Is that really a lamb’s shank bone, or just a chicken bone? When do we drink more wine?  In some cases, the answers were literally on the next page of the haggadah, but I was able to field most other questions without significantly affecting the flow of the service.

Finally, it was time to eat the main meal.  Anne had prepared eggplant dip, chopped liver, and potatoes, and my mom cooked up some beef brisket, chicken, and fruit kugel.  Everything tasted delicious, though it certainly helped that we were having a very late dinner.  Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go through the post-meal portion of the seder due to a confluence of the delayed start time and Anne’s youngest siblings’ bedtimes (the following day was a school day, after all).

I’m certainly in no rush to lead my next seder, a responsibility I hope continues to be held by my healthy father and grandfather for many years.  However, it was a lot of fun studying the details of the seder and the Passover holiday while preparing to lead it.  Also, I’m extremely grateful that Anne’s family is open to learning about the customs and holidays of my faith.  While we certainly differ on quite a few theological matters, I appreciate that Anne’s parents are willing to join my family for holiday celebrations.  It displays both a confidence in their beliefs and an acceptance of my ability to practice my faith.

On a completely unrelated note, I listened to this song on repeat while writing this blog.

When did I know Sam was “the one”?

Just like all beginning relationships, I had plenty of questions. “Will he still like me if I eat three burgers for dinner?” “Will my parents and siblings like him?” “Will his parents and siblings like me?” “Will we get along with each other’s friends?” “Will he be ok with my Catholicism?” At first, these questions bugged me. I had doubts that the relationship wouldn’t last because we are so different. However, after talking it over with my friends, something clicked. Instead of focusing on the fact that we were different, I began to embrace it.

I started sharing my hobbies with Sam. When I was with Sam, I experienced things differently than when I was with my other friends. After going to the theater with my girlfriends, we would talk about the rehearsal process, technical elements, and cast and crew. Seeing the exact same show with Sam, we would talk about how we related to the characters and how the acting moved the story along. Sam also started sharing his love of concerts and brewing with me, and introduced me to Judaism.

I began going to synagogue with Sam a few months into our relationship, and it was confusing at first. The service was completely different from the Catholic Mass, and it didn’t help that I didn’t understand Hebrew. After attending a few more services with Sam, I started researching the holidays and cultures and began to find joy in the ways that the Jewish holidays could benefit me personally or spiritually. Creating a menu for Passover became an exciting search, between my friends and I, to experiment with different ingredients within the dietary restrictions mandated during the holiday.

Sam and I started turning activities into exciting adventures.  Over the past two years we have attended numerous family holiday celebrations; the National Homebrew Conference, several beer festivals, numerous Synagogue events, Philadelphia Folk Festival, and other concerts; stewarded a mead (honey wine) competition; road tripped to Chicago (twice), Boston, and Minnesota; held a game marathon during the two-week black out of Super Storm Sandy; and celebrated a handful of friends’ interfaith/intercultural weddings.

Beer makes the holidays bearable.

Sam and Anne (2013)

So when did I know that Sam was the “one”? The answer is three-fold:

  • When I found that life is more fascinating with Sam than without him,
  • When being with him, no matter what we are doing, brings sheer happiness and joy, and
  • When I realized that I am comfortable with myself around Sam and being with Sam is helping me to grow as an individual.

Fasting on Your Wedding Day

By Sam Goodman

Ash Wednesday fell this past week.  The holiday marks the beginning of Lent, a period of penance, fasting, and abstinence in the Catholic faith, as well as many other Christian denominations. Ash Wednesday is one of the two days during the liturgical year that Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 observe a fast; the other is Good Friday (which happens to fall on Anne’s birthday this year).

My first introduction to the concept of a Catholic fast was Ash Wednesday two years ago, when Anne and I had been dating for only a few months.  She had told me that she was fasting, but had asked me to have dinner with her that night. I thought that was strange, and upon further questioning found out that a Catholic fast means partaking in only one full meal throughout the course of the day.  Also, during the Lenten season (between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday, the day before Easter), it is customary to abstain from a pleasurable activity.  Among the most common are giving up sweets or Facebook.  Alternatively, a Catholic could also consciously perform an action throughout the Lenten season to bring himself or herself closer to God, such as pray more often, forgive more easily, or complain less frequently.  Finally, during Fridays in Lent, Catholics do not eat meat.  As with kashrut, in which it is considered pareve (neither dairy nor meat), fish is not considered meat for the purposes of the Lenten abstention.

Diana (Sam’s sister), Stacey (Sam’s sister), Anne, and Sam on Yom Kippur 2013

The two most well-known Jewish fast days (Yom Kippur, one of the “high holidays”, and Tisha B’Av, the date commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem) require abstinence from not only food and drink, but also washing, applying perfumes, wearing leather shoes, and engaging in sexual relations.  These fasts last 25 hours, and take place from sundown to sundown during the holiday.  For those of you who’ve never tried it, it can be really tough to go without anything to eat or drink for a full day!

I bring this up on the Wedding Blog because it is traditional for Ashkenazic Jews to fast from sunrise until after the ceremony on their wedding day.  This is because the sins of the bride and groom are forgiven as they begin their new life together. In that way, the wedding functions like Yom Kippur, one of the most holy days in the Jewish calendar.  I intend to uphold this tradition during our wedding, fasting from sunrise until our Yichud, a ritual in which the bride and groom are secluded in a private room for about 15 minutes immediately following the conclusion of the wedding ceremony.

Our wedding is less than two weeks after Yom Kippur.  Normally I’d be concerned about my ability to endure two fasts in such quick succession, but this is one of the reasons why our ceremony will be over at 4:30pm!  In any case, I’m looking forward to a pair of meaningful fasts in the month of October.

Intro to Judaism

I signed up to take an Intro to Judaism class at Sam’s synagogue. When I went to (what I thought was) the first class, I sat amongst a classroom filled with 20 other adults. Everyone was taking the class for various reasons: to re-affirm their faith, learn the basics, teach their children who were going through Hebrew school. Then there was me — I was just curious to learn about Judaism.

Class began and I soon realized that this wasn’t the first class session. The class was trying to come up with a concrete definition of a Jew. Is it one’s actions or faith or name? Are you born a Jew? Are there specific qualities that make someone Jewish? Everyone was referring to specific Torah passages, famous historical rabbis and different articles and writings. Not having read any of the material, I quickly got lost in the conversation, and became more and more frustrated as the class continued.

I talked with the rabbi after that first class to see if he could offer me some guidance. He gave me the syllabus, book list, and articles to read for the next class. He told me that this class could be used to convert to Judaism if I wanted to take that step.  In that moment, I felt under attack.  I only wanted to feed my curiosity about the religion.  I was insulted that the rabbi seemed to take my expression of interest as a chance to proselytize.

I got home that evening and stress-ate an entire 1lb bag of M&Ms. I didn’t want to continue the class because I didn’t feel spiritually ready to have my religious beliefs criticized.  After some careful prodding by Sam, I drudgingly forced myself to go to class the following week.

Fast-forward 12 weeks and I love the class!  Over the course of the class, I’ve gotten to know the rabbi and his mannerisms, and I now recognize that that first comment was not meant to be demeaning, but only to offer an opportunity to convert if I was so interested.  I have made it clear that I do not intend to convert to Judaism, but have used this class to reaffirm my own faith.

There is another Catholic in the class, which I am grateful for, although his mannerisms and occasional off-topic meanderings remind me of my grandfather.  The class has dwindled down to a core group of 7 people: 3 who were born and raised Jewish, 2 who converted to Judaism in their adult lives (including the rabbi’s wife), and 2 Catholics. It has been really interesting hearing the different stories and interpretations that everyone brings to the class.

A few class sessions ago, we talked about the different Jewish life cycle events, discussing the symbols and meanings behind the brit milah/baby naming, bar/bat mitzvah, and marriage. The marriage segment of the class turned into a Q&A about our upcoming wedding. The class was curious as to whether we plan to have the standard Jewish symbols and customs at our wedding, such as the chuppah, smashing the glass, etc. Those were easy yes and no questions that Sam and I had previously discussed.  Then they asked the why questions. Why are having those specific traditions and customs and how did we come to those conclusions. My answer was to read this blog!

We are about half way finished the course.  So far, we have had in-depth conversations about a number of topics, including the afterlife, order of the Shabbat service, Torah, holidays, and history of Judaism.  The second half of the class is delving into the history of Judaism.  I am consistently doing the weekly readings (sometimes over 300 pages!), answering the study questions and always bringing my own set of questions. This prep work has made class a lot less frustrating and a lot more fascinating!