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Diversity at the Table

March 24, 2010

"My father was a wandering Aramean."

Well, not exactly, but my father, who is Jewish, was born in Barcelona, Spain. He always brings engaging personal stories and a true appreciation for the Passover story to the seder. My mother, who is also Jewish, grew up in Peoria, Ill. Both sets of my grandparents were Jewish. The three generations of relatives who gather around our seder table each year come from my mother's side of the family. Some are Jewish, some are not. We are from different countries, different races, different ethnic backgrounds, and from a wide range of religious upbringings.

Robert Johnson, Carol Gaebler and Laura Black at last year's seder, 2009.
Robert Johnson, Carol Gaebler and Laura Black at last year's seder, 2009.

My sister Lisa's husband, Robert Johnson, was born in Jamaica. While growing up, Robert was exposed to Christianity and then became immersed in Rastafarian religion at a young age.

With an introduction to the Exodus story in Bible class taught in public school in Jamaica, then a more in-depth exploration of the Old Testament through Rastafarian, Robert was no stranger to this story when he first joined our seder table about 25 years ago. As such, it makes sense that he finds meaning during this holiday in "the link with the ancestors, through time and space," he said. "I'm intrigued when I hear Hebrew. There is a whole familiarity. There's a certain level of comfort."

My cousin Carol Gaebler--her father and my maternal grandfather were brothers--grew up in a Jewish home with two Jewish parents. Currently our seder organizer, Carol hosted for many years and has led the seder as well.

"I like most of the Passover story and see it as a metaphor for journey and growth. It took me a long time to decide that it was probably all metaphor and that none of it probably really happened," Carol explained. "I think of it as the holiday that heralds spring. I like the songs and hiding the afikoman (half of a matzah saved for the end of the meal), and watching how the kids do things differently in different years."

Carol and her husband, Robert (Bob), have a full house during Passover, with their visiting grown children and their families, as well as other out-of-town relatives.

Yackley, Armin and Baruch families
The Yackleys, the Armins and the Baruchs at seder.

"When I hear about families where the aunts and uncles and cousins never see each other, I am grateful for the Passover holiday because that is the only time the whole family is together. It keeps the contact up. I would say also that seder is valuable as a memory bank--I have memories of my mother, of [cousin] Joel, of [sister-in-law] Ruth at the seders. It is a way of invoking their presence, which is kind of bittersweet," Carol said.

With two of her three sons married to non-Jewish spouses, Carol added, "I also welcome the chance to have an interfaith ritual for my two non-Jewish daughters-in -law."

Bob Gaebler wasn't raised in any particular religion, and gravitated toward the Unitarian Church at the young age of 13.

Around this same time, Bob's family sent him to live with a Jewish family in Detroit, where he found it easy to fit in with the family's religious observances.

"By the time I met my wife, I had been exposed to a variety of Jewish influences and felt quite at home with a Jewish wife and Jewish kids," Bob continued. "Carol's mother, Marie Armin, clearly wanted our kids to have a Jewish education, and she was such a sweetie, who could resist?"

Carol and Bob have three sons: David, Ken and Mike. David's wife, Lois Griff, comes from a traditional Jewish background; Ken's wife, Ellen Hanson, who is not Jewish, graciously hosts our rather large seder gathering each year; and Mike's partner, Susan Lowance, was raised Episcopalian.

Mike usually brings a salad to the seder, and this year he and Susan will also be bringing their 11-month-old son, Sam, the newest addition to our table.

Our seders are always filled with moments of fun, meaning, connections, music and more.

While Mike shared that he enjoys relaxing with and seeing family, Susan said she enjoys "watching my partner struggle to explain how he is related to everyone in the room."

As a group, we are always open to enhancing our seder experience, and Mike said he would like to add a matzah-ball-eating-contest. I'm leading this year, so I'll think about how we might incorporate that into our Passover meal, especially if Mike can be talked into making extra matzah balls.

Many of the men in our family love to cook, and my husband, also named Mike, is no exception. Raised in a traditional Catholic home, with eight years of Catholic school under his belt, Mike spends days making a mean batch of horseradish from scratch for the seder each year.

Some of our relatives travel from Canada for the seder. Linda Fried, whose late husband, Joel, was a first cousin of my mother's, makes the trip down each year. She's always been so involved in our family's Jewish gatherings that for years I thought she was the Jewish link.

"I come from an agnostic background," Linda said. "My father was a Quaker who left his religion in the second World War and joined the Navy. My mother's background is less established, but she may have been Unitarian, the only religion we were raised in, for a brief period."

Each year, Linda brings the matzah balls to the seder. I've never done a count, but I'm sure it's at least 75 matzah balls. She also makes a wonderful flourless chocolate cake. "It's based on ground almonds, eggs and chocolate. Every year Lois (one of Carol's daughters-in-law) asks me what's in it. And Joel wouldn't eat it because he said it mimics cake that is leavened," she said.

Linda has two grown children, Judith and Ben, who both live on the West Coast. Ben and his partner, Jennifer, whom Linda considers her daughter-in-law, as they've been together for many years, make it in for seder when they can.

In her musings about our melting pot of a family, Linda added that "Jennifer provides an interesting mix. Her mother is Quebecois and her father is African American, with some Native American mixed in. Her background is Catholic, though I don't know how observant."

Another cousin, Laura Black--her maternal grandmother and my maternal grandmother were sisters--comes to us from Ohio. She has her own unique interfaith mix.

"My religious background is closet Jewish, born and raised Unitarian. I consider myself a Jewish Unitarian," she said.

Eloquently expressing the feelings shared by many of our family members, Laura said: "What I love most about our family's seder celebration is the chance to connect with my larger Chicago family. I love the traditions of our seder celebration. For me, it's both a connection to my Jewish heritage and to the customs celebrated by this larger family, of which I am proud to be a part. I am a more recent participant/celebrant, so it's a learning experience as well. Sometimes what I think I can contribute the best for now is an attitude of appreciation.

"The food is almost secondary; although it's always good, and there are food traditions, like Mike's horseradish. It's just great to be there with folks who respect each other enough to maintain such a treasured connection. Even if I cannot always come to the seder myself every year, I still feel a part of it all."

Laura did not grow up in a Jewish home. Her father, who grew up surrounded by the Pueblo Indian culture of the American Southwest, instilled her with many of those values and sensitivities. But interestingly enough, it's a ceramic seder plate she crafted some years ago that encompasses her religious and spiritual influences.

"What I like to bring to our seder," said Laura, "is a ceramic slab-built seder plate I made a long time ago that has amazingly survived many moves, and that I always keep on display in my dining room. When I made it, I pressed various seashells I'd collected into the clay to make some interesting textures and designs, and to remind me of my reverence for the two most important things in my life: the natural world, and my 'Chicago family' roots."

"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. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." 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.
Rachel Baruch Yackley

Rachel Baruch Yackley is a freelance writer, nonprofit administrator, educator, mother and wife. For over 13 years, her articles have been published in newspapers, magazines and online. Rachel also leads services, song leads, teaches religious school and volunteers with Fox Valley Jewish Neighbors in Geneva, IL.

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