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What do you do when your mother-in-law sends chocolate Easter bunnies to your Jewish children? When she brings Easter bread to your Passover seder? When you find that the drug store has sold you Hanukkah wrapping paper in April for your nephew's first communion gift?
Let's start with the chocolate Easter bunnies. When the padded, brown paper package arrives secured with miles of Scotch tape and bearing your in-laws' return address, I recommend the following. Summon your kids to the kitchen table by announcing, "Look what Grandma sent," and distribute the candy. Be sure to snatch some for yourself. This approach works for our family, and it doesn't seem to leave the kids confused about their Jewish identity.
Now that we're warmed up, let's consider the Easter bread at Passover. Early in our marriage, before we had children, my mother invited my mother- and father-in-law to my parents' home for their first Passover seder, ritual meal. Unbeknownst to my mother-in-law, hametz (leavened foods) are banned from Jewish households during the eight days of Passover. Too polite to come empty-handed, my mother-in-law arrived at my parents' door bearing . . . a Portuguese sweet bread. It was gorgeous, undeniably leavened, and all decked-out for Easter with pink, yellow, and blue hardboiled eggs baked right into the crust.
"I hope this is okay," my mother-in-law said.
"Of course!" my mother replied brightly, and with great ceremony, placed it on the center of the table, right there with the seder plate, the matzoh (unleavened bread), and Elijah's cup. Following mom's lead, the rest of us just kept our mouths shut.
Now, in true Talmudic fashion, let's dissect this story. Should my mother have explained to my mother-in-law that she couldn't accept a Portuguese sweet bread on Passover?
Yes. My mother should have explained the facts of Passover, both out of respect for our family's observance and to help my mother-in-law avoid making the same mistake in the future.
No. My mother was right not to have said anything. My mother-in-law's gift was sincere, heartfelt, and genuine. Telling her would have served no purpose except to embarrass her and make her worry the rest of the evening that she might do something else wrong.
That's not what's important. This is my favorite answer. For me, what matters most is that my mother-in-law brought a wonderful offering from her heritage and my mother integrated it into hers. There would be time enough to teach about Passover, time enough to look back and laugh. But in the moment that my mother-in-law carried her best intentions through the door and my mother protected her from cultural disapproval, they were both trying their hardest to support their intermarried children.
Now I'll stop picking on my mother-in-law and turn to the communion gift I wrapped in Hanukkah paper. My husband's lack of interest in all things religious spares us from having to confront going to church on Easter, but that doesn't mean we always get away with it. Sometimes springtime brings weddings, sometimes baptisms, and sometimes first communions.
Sleep deprived with a toddler and a new baby in the house, we found ourselves one Sunday morning in April rushing from Boston to Providence with my nephew's unwrapped first communion gift. Stopping on the way at an early-hours drug store, I grabbed the roll with the prettiest colors, paid for it, and zipped back to the car, figuring I'd wrap the gift on the sly when we arrived.
As soon as we got to my nephew's house and attended to all obligatory greetings, I hid the gift and paper in a bag, asked my sister-in-law for tape and scissors, and stole off to do the deed. Removing the plastic and spreading the paper, I saw. . . gimels (a Hebrew letter), dreidels (a spinning toy used at Hanukkah), menorahs (to hold Hanukkah candles), and stars of David (a six-pointed Jewish star). For a communion gift. In April. Who sells Hanukkah wrapping paper in April? Uh-oh.
I called in my sister-in-law, showed her the paper, explained what I'd done, then held my breath. She, for her part, laughed, left the room, and proceeded to tell the tale to all assembled, who were clearly amused but not nearly as mortified as I was. So the communion gift was wrapped in Hanukkah paper and, as far as I could tell, my nephew wasn't phased. He was more interested in what was inside.
Which is, I suppose, the point. Snafus, faux pas, and lapses in judgment happen. That's life. The trick is to see through all that. More power to you if your interfaith family is Martha-Stewart-perfect. The rest of us klutzes (awkward people) will raise a glass this Passover and Easter season and, with all the glory and irony we can muster, exclaim "L'Chaim!"-To Life!