March 27, 2007
When my Jewish mother married my Armenian father, her parents refused to attend the wedding and didn't speak to her for several years because he wasn't a Jew. Eventually, they resumed contact, and we maintained a friendly relationship with my grandparents and some of my cousins. But a sense of distrust remained. We tiptoed around the subject of my mother's break with Judaism and the intensity of her family's disapproval. As a child I felt responsible, like any wrong move on my part would cause another rupture. I came away with the belief that religion could make people do crazy things, could sever otherwise strong relationships.
My mixed feelings about religion were part of the package when my husband, David, and I got married. Since then, I've become a lot more accepting of the increasingly important role God plays in his life. But I am still resistant to the idea. His belief in God means only good things to him, but some part of me fears that if he believes in God, he will leave me someday.
We used to celebrate one night of Passover at my grandparents' home with my mother's brother, his wife and daughters. They were Orthodox Jews, and the traditional seder was conducted in Hebrew by my grandfather and uncle. The rest of us sat quietly and listened as they read through the haggadah very quickly. I don't doubt that pronouncing each word was deeply meaningful to them, but to me, the experience was about sitting through a stream of unintelligible sounds. I liked dipping the foods in salt water and the Four Questions, which I recited in English. On the whole, it didn't seem like a particularly spiritual or communal event, although who am I to judge what the others felt?
After my grandfather died, the seder took place at my uncle's home, and we were not invited anymore, since we would have to drive from New Jersey to Queens in order to attend, and this broke a rule about driving on the first two days of Passover. My grandfather had overlooked this in order to maintain the family connection, but my uncle, for whatever reason, would not allow it.
My mother always hosted her own seder anyway, so we continued with this tradition, using a secular humanist haggadah, inviting all the non-religious Jews in the family and frequently a non-Jew or two. Over the years, these seders have been lively and a lot of fun for the kids (not a lot of reading, lots of dipping and eating). David and I often find ourselves shushing the other guests so we can listen to and contemplate the story. I surprise myself by wanting our Passover celebration to be more sacred, more focused on the meaning of the holiday. Although I am still conflicted about what role religion should play in my life and the lives of my two young children, I now acknowledge my curiosity about religion and my desire for something holy in my life.
Traditionally, my family celebrates Easter by decorating eggs. We do it the usual way, with food coloring, crayons and Q-Tips, and the Armenian way, by dying them with brown onion skins. When the eggs dry, we each choose one to compete in an egg-tapping contest. The last egg to crack is the winner, and as a reward, its owner gets to bask in the glory of having chosen the superior egg. We don't talk about spring and rebirth. We certainly don't mention Jesus or the resurrection. We tap eggs and eat candy.
For David, who was brought up in an Irish-Italian Catholic household until he was about 9, our secular celebration of Easter is not enough. He is not a Catholic or even a Christian, really, but he grew up in the church and still finds meaning there.
A few years ago, despite my trepidation, we attended a Catholic Mass together for Easter. I walked away feeling like the story of the resurrection might give me nightmares. We had an intense argument afterwards while walking along a dried-up brook in Nyack, N.Y. David didn't like the service either, but the holiday brought up this conflict between us: his desire to share his connection to God, and my anger, fear and lack of belief.
The following year, after an argument on a rugged path near a highway in Teaneck, N.J., we went back to egg tapping. But the year after that, we gave it another try, this time attending All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan, with our 18-month-old daughter in tow and a new baby boy growing inside my belly.
The choral music was lovely and the discussion of Easter was much less terrifying than at the Catholic Church. But, despite the openness of the sermon and the fact that the church hosts a Passover seder, All Souls is still a church, and as a Jew, I did not feel comfortable there. Thankfully, neither did David.
So far in our married life, our Easter tradition has involved having an argument about God. I guess this is not such a bad thing. It has kept the question alive and forced us to reconcile our beliefs in some way. The arguments have decreased in intensity over the years, as my distrust of religious belief has lessened, and David's needs have clarified. It turns out that he really just wants to hear some beautiful Easter music in a church setting. There is no need for me to sit through a spooky sermon or for him to be unfulfilled by my family's unsanctimonious egg-dyeing ritual.
There is still a tremendous difference of faith between us, and both of us have some fear about what this means for our relationship. But in the simplest terms, David and I agree that Easter is about rebirth, and Passover is about survival. Rebirth and survival are certainly worthy of celebration, especially for my Jewish-Armenian-Irish-Italian children, whose great grandparents nearly didn't make it.