Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at www.pearlstreetpublishing.com.
An Alternative to the Traditional Hagaddah for Your Interfaith Seder
Variants of the haggadah, the book that serves as a guide to the Passover seder, the ritual Passover meal, abound. Some have a social or political spin, such as likening the deliverance of the ancient Hebrews to the 20th century liberation movements of women and homosexuals, respectively. Other adaptations simply seek to make the traditional haggadah, a relatively lengthy tome written primarily in Aramaic, more accessible to contemporary seder participants.
Since Passover seders are usually attended by friends and family members, and since so many Jews have intermarried, it is increasingly common for a modern seder to include Christian guests. When this is the case, it is especially important for a haggadah to be "user friendly."
Clarity is crucial, but should not come at the expense of authenticity. In truth, all adaptations sacrifice a degree of genuineness. But just as a good "Jewish-style" delicatessen manages to maintain a "Jewish flavor," despite the lack of a Kosher cuisine, a successfully adapted haggadah maintains a traditional "Passover flavor," despite a novel perspective.
The Inter-faith Family Seder Book by Nan Meyer scores very high marks on accessibility, but falls a bit short when it comes to maintaining a sense of tradition.
An example of one of Meyer's adaptations that works very well is the recitation of the plagues. Typically, at one point during the seder, the entire assemblage enumerates the plagues. In Hebrew, each plague is identified by one word, except for the last. In English, the plagues are also identified by only one word, except for numbers 4 and 10, as follows: Blood; Frogs; Gnats; Wild Beasts; Murrain; Boils, Hail, Locusts, Darkness; Slaying of the First Born.
Even in English, the above list of scourges can still be mystifying to someone unfamiliar with the Passover story. For instance, what does "blood" signify exactly? And how many people are familiar with the term "murrain?"
Meyer's recounting of the plagues (below) is excellent as it provides a more precise description of the terrible afflictions visited upon the Egyptians:
The waters turned to blood
Frogs invaded the land
Lice infected the people
Wild beasts roamed
Locusts attacked the crops
Darkness blanketed the land for three days
Every first-born Egyptian died
As regards the Four Questions, Meyer's adaptation is less successful. The youngest child at the seder traditionally asks the Four Questions. Though customarily chanted in Hebrew, they are often recited in an English that, if translated comprehensibly but correctly, retains a certain eloquence.
In Meyer's haggadah, the Four Questions asked by the youngest child are sung to the tune of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," as follows:
Daddy, Daddy, tell me why, Only matzah do I spy
Daddy Daddy, why do we eat, herbs bitter, apples sweet,
Daddy, Daddy, you really aughta S'plain the dipping and salt water,
Daddy, daddy, tell me please Why tonight we sit at ease
This version, though "cute," tends to trivialize the importance of the questions. (And not to put too fine a politically correct point on it, who says "Daddy" has all the answers?)
Meyer does include the original Four Questions (in Hebrew and in the transliterated version) as an option to be chanted by an older child, but she omits any translation that would convey their significance.
In some families, it has become customary to place an extra chair at the seder table to represent an unknown Jew who is now, or has been at one time, denied the freedom to celebrate Passover. Meyer adds a different twist to this relatively recent practice by specifically including a part for a Christian participant. Referring to the empty chair, a Christian guest says, "Some of us might see in this chair, a rabbi called Joshua, who our books tell us, came some 2,000 years ago with his disciples, to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem."
References to Jesus are common in Passover seders held in churches to commemorate the Last Supper, but they're hardly commonplace during a family seder in a Jewish household. The reference noted above is tasteful enough to avert discomfort on the part of more traditional guests, while adding a sense of inclusiveness to the gathering.
Though not perfect, The Inter-faith Seder Book is still a viable alternative to the traditional haggadah for those of us who celebrate Passover in the company of our Christian friends and relatives.