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InterfaithFamily.com is pleased to offer this advice column for individuals encountering complicated interfaith situations. The column is written by Wendy Weltman Palmer, M.S.W., a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Dallas, Texas. As a former director of Outreach and Synagogue Community for the Union of Reform Judaism, Ms. Palmer helped develop programs for interfaith couples and families throughout the southwest. Ms. Palmer's experience as a partner in an interfaith marriage adds a special dimension to the consultation.
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My Jewish son is getting married this year to a lovely Hindu woman. They have decided to raise Jewish children, which I am so happy about. I really like her family, too, and am wondering if I should invite them to our Passover seder. They live far away and would have to make a special trip to come. I don't want them to feel as if I am imposing Judaism on them by inviting them, but I do want to be open and welcoming. Is there a way to invite them without making them feel imposed upon?
Mother-in-law to be
Dear Mother-in-law to be,
By all means invite your future in-laws to your Passover seder! There are both personal and religious reasons why issuing this invitation is a good idea. Because it is entirely home based, Passover is far and above the most family-oriented holiday on the Jewish calendar. Like Shabbat, which occurs week in and week out, there are blessings and songs to be recited by the family at their very own dinner table and not in a synagogue setting. To people raised outside of Judaism, this display is an unusual concept and interesting to experience.
One of the primary injunctions in the celebration of Passover is that Jews remember that they were once slaves in Egypt. The telling of the Passover story, which incorporates themes of deliverance and redemption, is meant to be considered on many levels with applicability beyond the Jewish people. In addition, the phrase "Let all who are hungry come and eat," which is recited during the home service, is meant to be taken quite seriously. Aside from family, it is customary, some might say obligatory, to invite others who have no seder for themselves, particularly the poor in the community. One can begin to see how the message of Passover also touches on many concepts central to Judaism. Inviting someone new to your seder is a wonderful way to expose them to some of what Judaism is about.
Of course, when there are high expectations for a warm and wonderful family holiday, family dynamics are thrown into high gear. A well-placed scholar who studies the interfaith family has suggested that Passover and Christmas are the holidays with the most parallels, not Passover and Easter as we traditionally think of them. With both Passover and Christmas one does find the high expectations for family togetherness, the traditions, the rituals, the "special" dishes, not to mention the sensory experience of certain smells and melodies that come only once a year. It is the intensity of these unique family holidays which creates the potential to bring people closer with more connection or to drive a wedge which creates lingering hurts and resentments.
You seem worried about having your in-laws travel a long distance for an experience that they might not understand or find enjoyable. I suggest you speak with your daughter-in-law to be, who I am assuming has spent at least one Passover seder with your family. Share with her your dilemma. Part of what you are seeking is a cultural translation. Will your wish to be open and inviting be felt as an obligation that will impose a financial or vacation hardship on her parents? Will your desire to expose her parents to this lovely home ritual be seen as an advertisement for Judaism? How can you help them "get it"?
Once you have acquired some key language from your daughter-in-law, I would suggest you write to your in-laws and explain to them something about the meaning of Passover and why you would love to have them celebrate with you and your family at the seder. The family seder would seem to be a perfect opportunity to bring together your two families so that you can begin to understand your differences as well as your similarities. I cannot think of a better way for this young couple to prepare themselves for their own journey together than to experience themselves in the crucible of both their families at the Passover table making the so-called passage from slavery to freedom.