Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.
Eggs and Plagues: Handling Easter and Passover in Our Interfaith Family
Spring in Michigan is always a welcomed event. Just ask anyone who has ever spent a winter here. So when the snow melts, and the crocuses bloom, everyone tends to get a little giddy. Of course, in my interfaith family, we have an extra reason to be elated. It's the Easter and Passover season.
My wife and I each have fond memories of our holidays. For Bonnie, it's matzah brei (eggs and unleavened bread fried up in a pan) and getting together with her cousins for Passover. For me, it's Easter eggs and Disney World for spring break with my family. To this day, just the smell of vinegar (used in the dye) reminds me of brightly colored eggs that the Easter Bunny hid for us to find. Like Christmas and Hanukkah, Easter and Passover can also evoke strong emotions in interfaith families.
Instead of letting these feelings be a source of strife for us, we decided to make them a springboard for embarking on a whole new set of experiences. We simply did not want to deny one of us our traditions by trying to pick which holiday would be celebrated in our household. Before we were married, Bonnie and I decided that we would each "help" the other celebrate his or her holiday. We do this for Christmas, Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, etc. Now that we have kids, we have decided to raise them Jewish. However, like their mother, they "help" me celebrate my holidays. While making certain that they understand that they are Jews, we are teaching them about my Protestant background, as well.
One of the most important aspects of these two holidays, for both of us, is being with our families. My wife must be with her family for Passover, or it just isn't the same. The big gathering of her parents, aunt, uncle, and cousins (and now their kids) is an annual happy occasion--even if it is the decibel level of a 747. We all get together in Boston for at least one of the two seders (Passover meals). We learn about Moses and the pharaoh, the ten plagues, and the significance of the Passover food. There's lots of singing and lots to eat. (The food is delicious, but too much matzah gives me lead belly.)
For my family, it is important to be together for Easter. As kids, my brother and sister and I used to dye Easter eggs on Saturday night. The morning of Easter Sunday, we'd wake up and scurry around the house looking for hidden eggs to put in our Easter baskets. As we grew older, we started to spend our spring break vacation in Disney World. Because this break always occurred over Good Friday and Easter, it became a tradition to enjoy our holiday with Mickey. Today, my whole family, nuclear and extended, makes the trip to Florida. Like my wife and her side of the family, it just wouldn't feel right spending the holiday any other way.
We also choose not to ignore the religious aspects of the holidays. Bonnie usually accompanies me to the Easter church service. I once asked her if all the talk of Jesus made her feel uncomfortable. She replied that, as foreign as it was, she still viewed it as an educational experience. She said that going to church with me gave her an opportunity to learn more about my faith and background. Because we're on the road for Easter, I never quite know what to expect in a different congregation from my hometown. I'm always afraid that the minister will say something that might offend my wife. I don't know exactly what that would be, yet I still worry. Fortunately, my fears have not even remotely come true.
As Bonnie learns from my Easter experience, I, too, enjoy taking in the Passover scene. My first seder with her was on the campus of the University of Michigan, while we were just dating. We went to a house with a bunch of friends, where our host proclaimed that, due to our getting together, there were a lot of happy mothers back home. Because we were students, we did a lot more eating and talking than anything. We skipped over quite a bit of the hagaddah, the book containing the prayers, songs, and story of Passover. I was not intimidated in this setting, but the following year, I wondered how would it be as I went to my first Passover with her big family in a "real" seder.
My wife has a wonderful family, and any opportunity to get together with them is a lot of fun. However, I was still worried about fitting in and not sticking out like a sore thumb at the dinner table. True to their form though, they went out of their way to make sure I didn't feel uncomfortable. I was assigned duties around the kitchen just like everyone else. I can proudly say that I helped grate the horseradish for the Passover plate. (Each food on the plate is symbolic in some way. Horseradish symbolizes the bitterness of slavery the Jews experienced in Egypt.)
The first couple of years spending Passover with Bonnie's family were a huge learning experience for me. There's a part of the seder when the leader of the service breaks a piece of matzah called the afikoman. In some families, the kids hide the afikoman and hold it for ransom. In Bonnie's family, sometimes the leader will hide it in the room and make the kids hunt for it. Now this I could relate to! I did feel out of place when passages were read in Hebrew, or even worse, sung in Hebrew! Not knowing the language is bad enough, let alone not knowing the tune. What was reassuring for me was feeling that everyone there wanted me to be a part of the family.
Over the years, I've gotten to know the different prayers, songs, and symbols of Passover. .I've found that I can make this as easy or as difficult as I want it to be. The first couple of Passovers were especially hard not knowing what was going on. Rather than just sitting there, though, I've discovered that it's much easier on my comfort level--and it's a lot more fun--to learn the material and participate. Bonnie's family has always been welcoming and supportive. I've chosen to make this an experience from which I can absorb a lot about my wife's religion. This coming Easter and Passover will be our fifteenth together. As we learn more about each other's holidays, we, as parents, are better prepared to impart to our children the meaning of Daddy's Easter and the traditions of their own Passover.