March 20, 2007
Two years ago, and for the first time, my parents and brother traveled from upstate New York to my house in Waltham, Mass., to attend a Passover seder. And it wasn't just my "house" at which we were gathering--it was the "home" I was sharing with Jean-Paul, who has since become my husband. It was the first family holiday we would host in our home. Jean-Paul's mother was also invited, and it would be the first time she'd be meeting my parents.
The decision to hold the seder at our house that year was primarily a logistical one. It would have been a long drive for Jean-Paul's mother to travel to my parents' home in upstate New York for the dinner, and my father had been ill that year, making it difficult for my mother to plan and prepare a traditional holiday meal.
I was surprised when my parents agreed with my plan to host the seder, as my father has always felt strongly about holding a traditional seder at their home. Although the home I grew up in wasn't kosher, at the seder we ate only kosher food, and we ate it on special holiday plates. We read the introductory prayers in Hebrew, recited the story of Moses from a Conservative haggadah, and my younger sister asked the Four Questions. Our family held both first and second night seders until recently, and we observed the tradition of abstaining from eating bread for eight days.
Although Passover can be a festive holiday, and my mother made a special effort to prepare a delicious meal of traditional foods, the seders in my parents' home were often tinged with sadness. My father, a Holocaust survivor, could not shake the memory of the seders held in Europe before or during the war. At the point where the haggadah asks us to thank God for defending our people from harm in every generation, my father would usually put down the book, and explain, painfully, that he could not say that part. He wondered, as many Jews do, where God was during the Holocaust.
Jean-Paul had been to one or two seders before, but he wasn't overly familiar with the Passover holiday. He asked me questions about what to expect, helped me figure out how to arrange the dining room, and light-heartedly offered to cook a turkey since I'm a terrible cook. He was interested in the customs and wanted to help in whatever way he could. Jean-Paul has always felt that it is important that we establish our own traditions in our home, which he has agreed will be a Jewish one.
As Passover approached, Jean-Paul noticed my increasing nervousness and tolerated my anxiety. My brother would sit at the head of the table and run the seder, since my father hadn't been feeling well. Although I thought my brother might enjoy the opportunity to lead our holiday dinner for the first time, I worried about how my father would feel. My sister and her family live in California, so they wouldn't be attending.
I wanted everything to be right for my parents, and especially for my father. I know that it would have meant a lot to him if I had found a Jewish partner. He grew up in a world where people sat shiva, the Jewish mourning ritual, for sons or daughters who intermarried. Yet despite his background, my father has come a long way over the years in his level of acceptance. He loves Jean-Paul. Still, I wanted him to be comfortable at the seder, and I was overcome with worry that he wouldn't feel that our home, or our seder, was "Jewish enough."
My mother, over the telephone, helped me make sure we'd have everything we needed. She said she would bring the haggadahs and the soup, instructed me in the making of the matzah balls, reminded me of the symbolic foods that would be needed to fill the traditional Passover plate, and sent me a couple of her traditional recipes.
It was also important that Jean-Paul's mom, who had never attended a seder, would feel comfortable. Both she and her son were a little nervous about having to read aloud from a book over dinner. Still, she claimed to be looking forward to the evening.
The morning of the seder, Jean-Paul realized that he had forgotten to defrost the turkey. We tried to laugh instead of panic, and spent the day turning it every half hour in a sink full of water while we prepared the dining room and the rest of the food.
By the time our guests arrived, the table was set with festive paper plates and wine glasses, and looked much like the holiday tables I'd sat at all my life. Jean-Paul's mom arrived beautifully dressed and greeted my parents. Although this was their first meeting, everyone immediately seemed comfortable. When we sat down to the meal, my brother, who took his role seriously and had prepared some thoughts and ideas about the Passover traditions, explained different aspects of the holiday and led the group through sections of the haggadah.
Throughout the evening I stole anxious glances at my parents to try to determine from their faces if they thought our Passover table was "Jewish enough." They graciously took part in everything, and at the end of the evening, before driving home, they hugged me goodbye and assured me that everything had been wonderful. So did Jean-Paul's mom.
Looking back two years later, I realize how generous everyone was to me that night. Jean-Paul and his mom took part in a holiday that wasn't their own, and attended with open hearts, asking questions and even helping read from the haggadah. My parents set aside any feelings they might have had about my lack of a Jewish partner and embraced Jean-Paul, his mom and my new home. My brother stepped up to the plate and ran a meaningful and educational seder that could have been confusing and awkward for the newcomers, but wasn't.
And me? At 42 I was like a little girl trying to be a grown woman for the first time in my life, hosting the Passover seder in my new home. In the end, I did help carry on a tradition that has lasted for thousands of years, one that survived the Holocaust and will continue to survive--and thrive--in the life my husband and I are building together.