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Making Passover Work in an Interfaith Home

March 22, 2007

"Mah nishtana halila hazeh" ("Why is this night different from all other nights?") is the first of the four questions asked by the youngest child during the Passover seder. For me, it takes me back to when I was a girl growing up in a Conservative Jewish household. As the youngest of the three, I was the one who had to ask the Four Questions at every Passover seder until my niece and nephew were old enough to ask them. The songs, the celebrations, the traditions and the family togetherness all made Passover a special time in my home as a child (even with the numerous dietary restrictions).

In traditional Jewish homes, families remove all chametz--leavened bread or products that use certain forbidden grains--before the beginning of Passover. The only bread that they may eat is matzah.

So, how did I take those memories and traditions and weave them into my own interfaith home? Actually, quite easily. My husband, who has been a non-practicing Catholic for quite some time, has, over the years, become interested in learning more about Judaism. Since Reform Judaism is the religion in which we agreed to raise our children, he has been extremely accepting and welcoming of celebrating and learning about the Jewish holidays. I have never pushed my beliefs or celebratory ways on to my husband. If he chooses to participate in whatever way he wants, I am happy to guide him as far as he likes.

Judaism has become even more prevalent in our home now that our 5-year-old son is enrolled in preschool at our local Jewish community center. We celebrate the Jewish holidays, including Passover, in our home and at times celebrate non-Jewish holidays with friends and family outside of our home. The reality is we rarely even celebrate non-Jewish holidays, like Easter, at all. My husband does not seem to have an interest in observing or even acknowledging them, despite my willingness to help him celebrate.

Growing up in a Conservative Jewish home, I was more observant than I am now as a Reform Jew. That includes Passover time. I clean the house, perhaps using the holiday as an annual excuse to empty out the refrigerator and pantry, to rid ourselves of things that are old as well as separating out the chametz (non-Passover foods). I clear out a small area of the cupboard to keep the Passover foods, which except for the matzah, usually only I eat, and the rest of the kitchen remains the same. No Passover dishes, no blocking off certain cabinets, and no moving the chametz out of sight or off the premises--which all were part of Passover when I was growing up.

The night before Passover begins, we hold an abbreviated version of the "search for the chametz" where I hide some bread, we say the bracha (blessing), and my husband, sons and I walk around with a candle, search, scoop up the bread and dispose of it. Perhaps it's not the proper way, but it's our way, and it's becoming a family tradition.

Our Passover seders are spent with family and friends with whom we have been celebrating for many years. As we all have had children and the numbers around the table have grown, it's not as easy to hold a traditional seder, but we include as many elements as we can before the troops get restless.

As the children are growing older, they are becoming more interested and more participatory in things like the Four Questions, searching for the afikomen (dessert matzah that is hidden during the seder for the children to find) and opening the door for Elijah the prophet.

The remainder of the holiday is spent trying our best to follow the Passover dietary restrictions. I abstain from eating bread, rice, flour and as many of the other non-Passover foods as I can. I do not force the restrictions on to my husband, but he has supported me by not eating bread at most meals--at least when he eats with me! My mother even baked my husband a Passover birthday cake which he really liked, as his April birthday sometimes falls during Passover. Our children are too young (5 and 2), in our opinion, for us to impose the rules on to them, although they both do enjoy matzah and charoses (nut and apple mixture) and are willing to try most of the foods. When Passover has ended, we order in a pizza and once again enjoy eating what we could not for the previous eight days.

Our celebrations are having a positive impact in our family. For our older son, who celebrates a Passover seder at his preschool, our home celebrations help to tie it all together for him. My husband has learned tremendously over the years and our observance of the Jewish holidays has become very special to him. So, in essence, for us, Passover is a night different than all other nights, and one that I hope will continue to bring new traditions, customs and special memories as our family learns and shares together.

Hebrew for "what is different," the first words of the Four Questions, traditionally recited by the youngest child at the Passover seder. "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. Derived from the Hebrew word "cheres," which means clay, it's a mixture of fruit, nuts, and wine eaten as part of the Passover seder. Symbolizing the mortar that the Hebrew slaves used to build the cities for Pharaoh in Egypt, it's one of the symbolic food items on the seder plate. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "leavened," foods that are not kosher for Passover, such as bread and wheat-based products. It refers to products that are both made from one of five types of grain and have been combined with water and left to stand raw (rise) for longer than eighteen minutes. Hebrew for "blessing" (and "bounty"). Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Abby Spotts

Abby Spotts lives in Harrisburg, Pa. with her husband and two sons.

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