April 10, 2009
I never paid much attention to Easter. Spring break usually included Good Friday and Easter but that was pretty much the extent of Easter's influence at school. The only Easter music I knew of was "Easter Parade" from the movie with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. Growing up I would see in the news about pilgrims in Jerusalem retracing Jesus's steps on Good Friday and Sunrise Services on Easter Sunday. Despite its significance to Christian doctrine, Easter did not have the same overwhelming influence on daily life as Christmas.
For Melanie, Easter was one of the two Christian holidays she celebrated--Christmas was the other--and her celebration of both was purely secular. Easter was special for the new dress it heralded, the types of candy received and a big dinner with relatives. In some ways, Melanie saw Easter even less as a religious holiday than I did.
|Michael Brent's daughters and their next-door neighbors playing with Easter eggs in 2004.
After we married, Melanie and I had many of the usual conflicts interfaith families have over Christmas. We made our peace with Christmas. We had no Easter celebrations until after children and these experiences were completely without the Christmas conflicts. I didn't see anything religious in hats, dresses, dolls and candy delivered in a basket by a bunny or an egg hunt with our neighbors. These activities continued until those neighbors moved but we had new neighbors on our other side and they invited us to celebrate Easter with their family.
We got together midday to hunt for Easter eggs. Our neighbors planned the egg hunt using plastic eggs with candy or money in them instead of dyeing real eggs. It was a different kind of hunt, a bit more competitive. Our 7-year-old daughters were at the upper age of the kids and found a lot of the eggs, but they were good about sharing with the younger kids. After the egg hunt we went inside and I had my first "Oh no" experience. It had nothing to do with Easter.
Kids see other kids differently than they see adults. During the egg hunt, my daughters played with the other kids and didn't find anything unusual. When we went into the house and they saw the adults the first thing one said was, "Everyone here is brown." Our neighbors are an interracial couple and most of the guests came from one side of the family. My children had been exposed to people of other races but had never been in a group with so many people of color. It was embarrassing until I realized that for my kids this was a statement of fact, not discrimination. After they made that observation, they ran off with the other kids to play hide-and-seek.
So far, this Easter was little different for me. We mingled and made small talk, sharing that our children went to a Jewish day school. Eventually, dinner was announced. We went into the kitchen. After waiting what I thought to be a reasonable amount of time, I started to help my children and myself to food from the buffet. Then I noticed that no one else was. An announcement was made for everyone to join hands for grace before the meal. I suddenly felt very out of place. I had not only started to eat before everyone else, I had started before anyone was supposed to start. I thought of the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen is seen by his hosts as an Orthodox Jew, dressed in a long black coat with payos and a long beard.
Here it was, a Christian religious prayer. My girls looked to me for what to do. As students at a Jewish school, they are used to praying. But here they were confronted with a new prayer. They could see that both I and Melanie were not fully comfortable, but when asked what to do I said the only thing I could think of, I told them to join hands. After all, our Reform Jewish interfaith family occasionally does hamotzi before we eat--usually on Shabbat and holidays. I just never had thought much about hamotzi being religious.
The relative who led the prayer obviously had skill in preaching. She talked about the story of Easter, spoke for what felt like a long time, although it couldn't have been more than a couple of minutes. There were a number of references to Jesus and it culminated with something like, we thank you Lord in the name of our savior, your only son, Jesus. This was a moment of great discomfort for me, but it was important not to let my children see this. I may have heaved a sigh but added "amen" with everyone else. Of course, food was another issue.
I grew up in a Reform Jewish household and didn't keep kosher. Our girls' school does not dictate family observances outside of school. While we don't keep a kosher home, my girls have learned many of the rules of kashrut and like to observe them. Now we were in a home where many of the dishes included pork. It was also Passover and most of the food contained chametz and are not eaten this time of year. Here is a situation, I told my girls, where they could learn about, and be respectful of, other people's observances and feelings.
In the end, there was no conflict. We shared a meal, my children discretely avoiding those items they felt they shouldn't eat. We shared kosher-for-Passover items we brought, with a description of why they were different from the other food. As people who had an interest in the Bible, they were fascinated by us taking our observance along with us. As the party wound down, we agreed that we had a good time and it was a learning experience for everyone.
We've continued to go to our neighbors' for Easter ever since and look forward every year to joining in their celebration.