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A Stranger at the Table

I am looking forward to the seder this year. We'll spend both nights with my wife's family; her sisters will greet me affectionately; their children will call me Uncle. I'll take off my jacket and recline and as we wait for the prayers and the meal to begin. The aromatic scents of foods I cannot pronounce, co-mingling with flowers and perfumes who's names I don't know, will waft beyond the kitchen walls to signal that the meal is almost ready.

If you could put holidays in a jar this is what you would smell when you open the lid.

I have learned in my short association with Jewish culture that to be welcomed into a Jewish family means to be welcome at the table and I dine here in the warmth of acceptance, knowing that a place has been reserved for me. However, my seat at this table is secured through marriage, not birthright, and much of what seems intuitive to my wife and her family continues to elude me.

I have only recently married into this family and I still have much to learn about the customs and traditions that shape my wife's heritage. Passover remains new to me but I am beginning to get acclimated to practices of the holiday. The first seder I attended was also the first time I met most of her family; it was like having "meeting-the-family-jitters" times chai (18, a lucky number meaning life) squared.

That evening began with lighting candles and saying prayers. This all seems safe enough now, but at the time I hid behind my wife as two terrifying fears dominated my thoughts: I hope no one is offended that I put on a yarmulke (skull cap) and it feels like my yarmulke is falling off right now. As a Catholic, the only thing I knew about Passover was that the Jesus' last supper had been a seder. When offered something called gefilte fish, I thought it would be my last meal as well. It looked quite intimidating, but love drives us to do the unthinkable. I had no choice but to sample the stuff. It was a rare circumstance of doing something to impress my wife, only to find that I actually liked it.

The rest of the meal was less mysterious; you pretty much got what was advertised. The bitter herbs were bitter, the salt water was salty, and although you couldn't build much of a wall with the charoset (chopped fruit and nuts symbolizing mortar), the unleavened bread was in fact, flat.

At other seders together, when my yarmulke didn't threaten to fall off (the less hair I have, the more secure it begins to feel each year), I relaxed enough to be rewarded with an even greater surprise than liking gefilte fish. One year I opened the hagaddah and found that many of the prayers that had been recited in Hebrew all these years were actually translated into English. Even more surprising was that they sounded familiar to me. Embedded within the text I found passages that I had been hearing ever since they started saying mass in English instead of Latin. I should have expected this. We read from the same bible, we pray to the same God. Somehow it's easy to forget that all of God's people probably ask Him for the same things.

At the seder we prayed for freedom and health and guidance; we prayed for freedom and health and guidance for others. But the story of Passover is the story of slavery and escape from persecution. After Treblinka and Dachau (two concentration camps), I wonder how Jews can ever have the faith to pray for others.

Each year while the children respond to their questions I wonder about the faith that Moses must have had. I get nervous walking through metal detectors at the airport; how does one muster the belief to walk through parted seas? How much faith does it take to convince others to follow you? If I get lost driving someplace, my wife will read John Gray's Venus and Mars chapters (from a book on the differences between men and women) out loud until I stop and get directions. How much faith does it take to convince your wife and your friends that you will find the Promised Land after you have spent 40 years walking around the desert looking for it?

How much faith isn't enough? God told Moses to tap a rock and water would flow forth, but Moses tapped the rock an extra time and was banned from entering the Promised Land. Imagine if anytime you pressed the call button when it was already lit you had to take the stairs when the elevator got there. It hardly seems like the kind of retribution that would spawn such an enduring tradition. And yet, here is my wife's family, like millions of others around the world, gathered around a table thousands of years later praying. People were probably gathering and reclining and eating and praying and putting out wine for Elijah and hiding the afikoman (middle matzah) from children for a thousand years before my religion was a religion. The whole concept is incredible to me. What kind of faith does it take to keep something alive that long?

Faith is one of those things that is hard to define but you feel like you know it when you see it. I look around the table and see wonder in the eyes of children, love in the eyes of family. There will be people to pray for next year, too, and it is comforting to think that we will gather here again for another year.

Yiddish for "stuffed fish," a patty made of ground up varieties of fish, matzo meal and spices, boiled in fish broth. A popular dish on Passover, sometimes served on Shabbat and other holidays as well. "Dessert" in Greek, it refers to the matzah that is hidden at the beginning of the Passover seder and which, customarily, children look for and ransom back to the adults before the conclusion. Derived from the Hebrew word "cheres," which means clay, it's a mixture of fruit, nuts, and wine eaten as part of the Passover seder. Symbolizing the mortar that the Hebrew slaves used to build the cities for Pharaoh in Egypt, it's one of the symbolic food items on the seder plate. Hebrew for "telling," the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Yiddish for "skullcap," also known in Hebrew as a "kippah," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.

Tim Rossi is a Catholic man married to a Jewish woman.

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