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The Passover Predicament

For interfaith families, the December Dilemma of how to balance the competing demands of Hanukah and Christmas celebrations gets a lot of attention.

But for interfaith families, the Passover Predicament can be more complicated. In part, that's because Passover and Easter are much more religiously significant than Hanukkah and Christmas. Because of its religious overtones, Easter can be much more complicated for interfaith families to negotiate, often leaving parents to question whether exposure to Easter holiday rituals will "negatively influence my child's Jewish identity." For centuries, the Easter story of the crucifixion has aroused anti-Semitism and pogroms, currently a topic generating a lot of attention due to the release of Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ.

To the four questions traditionally asked at the Passover seder, interfaith families have an added fifth set of questions: How do you balance the conflicting beliefs of extended families and their interfaith relatives who are invited to celebrate Passover or Easter with them? How can Christian grandparents discuss Easter with their Jewish-raised grandchildren -- can they take them to church? Or how can you celebrate Passover with traditional hagaddahs, which are written mostly in Hebrew and Aramaic and are not gender neutral, without alienating non-Jews?

The online community at InterfaithFamily.com is filled with resources, expert advice and personal stories on how to solve the Passover Predicament for all these complicated issues. It also discusses how you can transform your Passover experience so getting through the seder is not "a race-through-the-service-so-we-can-eat experience." In fact, one rabbi offers prayers to recite at a Passover seder that specifically acknowledge and welcome non-Jewish family members.

What follows is selected advice from the InterfaithFamily.com community. For more, check out the InterfaithFamily.com Archive for Passover and Easter.

The Significance of Passover and Easter

Passover, more than any other one rite or ritual, is a summary of Judaism. It includes the core Jewish story of redemption from Egyptian slavery; the formative journey through the Sinai desert on the way to the land of Israel; and various encounters with God, culminating in the revelation of Torah. Perhaps the most important contribution of the Passover story is the infusion of the Jewish people with unyielding hope in the face of adversity.

Likewise, Easter is a defining holiday of Christianity. The Easter story tells how the martyred Jesus becomes Christ, the Messiah for those who believe. Similarities to Passover include the anticipation of springtime. And some will even suggest that Jesus' Last Supper was none other than a Passover Seder. Such connections can form a bridge for greater understanding among interfaith families.

For those who consider Passover and Easter to be primarily about families getting together and enjoying special moments, there should be no real conflict. For those, however, who search for a deeper religious meaning in their respective faith celebrations, there are a number of options interfaith couples can choose from to reduce tension around these holidays.

Passover and Easter are unrelated as holidays. They are not in conflict with one another but rather are simply "a disconnect," stressing different outlooks on the spiritual and the religious. Couples that go their separate religious ways (even in the midst of their marital union) may avoid conflict, although they perhaps lose a shared sacred time together.

Another possible option is for families to "universalize" both holidays and try to tease out the humanist values that are contained in them (and leave the particularism behind), or to try to meld the symbolic and ritual elements in them to form one whole. Following this option runs the risk of robbing each holiday of its own character, leaving families with ritual practices lacking in a deeper spiritual meaning.

One recommendation: Take the time to look at Easter and Passover. Study the holidays together. Get a real sense of their inherent and explicit values and teachings. Discuss your feelings. While both traditions may contribute to your own sacred stories, is there one that you want to offer your children? On which spiritual and religious path do you want them to continue their own journey forward? Address the issues head-on and take control of them, rather than letting the issues overrun you and your family.

From Spring, Time for Choices and Family by the Jewish Outreach Institute, New York

The Passover Predicament

After making plans to visit (her fiance's family for Passover), Jenny realized that the Passover seder coincided with Good Friday. Several thoughts ran through her mind. "How do I tell Jeff's mother that I can't eat meat after she prepared a special meal with chicken or brisket or whatever delicious thing I shouldn't have? How will I feel to be away from my own family over the Easter weekend when we usually go to church on Easter and have a special dinner ourselves?" Although Jenny didn't want to upset plans, she decided that she needed to share her worries with Jeff. He responded, "Jen, I'm so glad you told me now. I'll call my mom and ask her to make fish for you. She'll understand and it'll be okay."

Easter and Passover may be particularly difficult holidays for interfaith couples. Although couples typically are aware that they need to negotiate Christmas and Hanukah plans, they often overlook the potential impact of Easter and Passover. For Jews, Easter crystallizes the religious differences between them and Christians. The week leading up to Easter is filled with important historical events from Jesus' life. From the commemoration of the Last Supper on Thursday, through observance of the crucifixion on Good Friday, to celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday, Christians reflect on the foundation of their beliefs -- beliefs that separate them from Jews. Moreover, the legacy of anti-Semitism, rooted in beliefs of some Christians that Jews were responsible for Jesus' death, can make Easter a particularly difficult holiday for Jews.

Couples facing tensions and issues associated with Easter and Passover might draw lessons from our vignette and from the experiences of many interfaith couples.
* Before the holidays occur, share your memories with each other.
* Explain the meaning of rituals and describe the typical practices followed by your family and by you.
* If you plan to participate in your partner's holiday observance, find out what to expect and what is expected of you.
* Anticipate what might be uncomfortable and develop a plan to reduce tensions. For example, if a Jewish partner worries about what might be said during an Easter service, you could look at a typical service from a prayer book or contact the clergy person in advance (not during the busy week leading up to Easter!). An alternate plan could be to share a holiday dinner but not to attend services as a large group. In the story, Jenny and Jeff were able to anticipate the problem of having meat served on Good Friday. Planning ahead avoided a potentially difficult situation for all.
* Make mutual respect and sensitivity part of all holiday plans. Talk with each other before, during, and after Easter and Passover observances to tune into each other's feelings. Build in ways to show respect for differing traditions without trying to make the holidays generic. If you water down your rituals, you risk taking the real meaning away and creating even greater offense or tension.
* Lastly, be flexible. If something doesn't work well, talk about how else you might do it. Create your own traditions within the context of your religious heritages. For example, a small group of interfaith couples/families might plan one seder together that blends Passover traditions with inclusiveness. Recognition of the Christian or non-Jewish partners' participation as integral members of such a support network encourages everyone to take ownership of the seder.

Easter and Passover present challenges for interfaith couples/families. These profound holidays also offer opportunity to share two rich heritages for an intensely meaningful experience

From When a Seder Meets Good Friday: Challenges During the Easter and Passover Holidays by June Andrews Horowitz, Boston

It can be an unbalancing feeling to know that the people who are closest to you, relatives you cherish, are part of an entirely different belief structure than the one you were raised inÉ. for my part, it's a strange moment, always, to realize that no matter how familiar the mass, or how deep my love for my relatives, this core part of their faith is not something I share, or something I can share in. Easter, for me, seems to represent the final break between Judaism and Christianity, the point at which the two belief systems parted ways forever. I find that I resent that a little. Perhaps, deep down, I think it would be easier if we all believed the same things.

But growing up in an interfaith family and a multicultural neighborhood taught me something about dealing with differences and cultural contradictions. It's good to be able to share, and to find common ground; for me it has been a blessing to have two cultures to draw on. But I've learned to use this holiday as a reminder that we are not all alike, that some things have no common ground to be found, and that still, this does not mean that there can't be love, respect, and mutual humanity. It's easy to assume that we're all essentially alike, and to disregard evidence to the contrary. But it's important, though harder, to know that there are some differences, both in families and in the wider world, that have to be accepted and embraced without understanding...as matters of faith.

From Who Knows What Easter Means?: Thoughts of A Grown Child of Interfaith Parents by Charlotte Honigman-Smith, San Francisco

How to Enliven Your Seder

1. Give Homework. Ask guests to prepare a presentation on some aspect of the ceremony. The presentation could be a drash, an explanation of what the hagaddah is trying to say. Over the years our presentations have also been given as a play, a song, and a takeoff on a game show. Not everyone in your family may be able to do this, but there is no better way to encourage participation than by asking people to prepare something in advance.

2. Tell the Story. The core of the seder is the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The traditional text of the hagaddah contains four different tellings of the story, each one beginning with a question, a response, and praise for God. Think of ways to tell the story that supplement the hagaddah. One year we were invited to a seder where the host family put on a skit. Stan Reiner's "Seder Scenes" (Alternatives in Religious Education) is a good resource for this activity. Another family we know of used puppets and storybooks. The most unusual telling, however, had to be the family who presented a magical version of the Ten Plagues in costume. The father played Pharaoh, who, after complaining how thirsty he was, asked one of the children to fetch him some cool, clear water from the Nile. The child left the dinner room and returned with a pitcher of water and an empty glass. As "Pharaoh" poured the clear water into the glass, it turned red! The father was an amateur magician who incorporated a variety of magic tricks into the telling of the story. It was amazing and unforgettable!

3. Ask Questions. The hagaddah invites questions. Encourage your guests to liberate themselves from the book and discuss what it is that the hagaddah is trying to tell us. A favorite point at which to do this is after the recitation of the Ten Plagues. "What are 10 things that plague us today?" is a question anyone, no matter what their level of Judaic knowledge, can answer. When the hagaddah tells us that we should feel as if we were redeemed from Egypt, what does that mean? What are we doing about Jewish continuity--in our family, in our community?

4. Have Fun. Having family fun is serious business, especially at the seder table. The seder was never meant to be dull. Quite the contrary, it is to be a relaxed, informal educational experience. Some families add favorite songs that children learn in religious school -- "Go Down, Moses," "One Day When Pharaoh Awoke in His Bed," and others. A favorite parody is Only Nine Chairs by Deborah Uchill Miller (Kar-Ben Copies), a hilarious account of a family seder.

From Ten Tips to Enliven the Seder: Ways to Delay That Fifth Question by Ron Wolfson, Los Angeles

Write Your Own Haggadah & Supplemental Readings

Traditional hagaddahs may not be appropriate for your Seder. Instead, try the liberation-theology-inflected Gates of Freedom. Or The Women's Hagaddah. But simply trading in my old liturgy for someone else's new one didn't feel quite right to me. What guarantee did I have that these alternatives would work for my interfaith family?

References to Jews as a "chosen people" struck us as chauvinistic, and likely to alienate the non-Jews among us; instead we tried to hint at universal redemption through telling our Jewish liberation story. Long Hebrew passages seemed likely to alienate both the non-Jews among us and the Jews who weren't reared with strong Jewish educations; we opted for the vernacular in many cases, even replacing the Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) with an English-language prayer of Thanksgiving.

I got a particular thrill from using the hagaddah we had written -- and knowing that our ritual was intelligible to my husband made the evening all the sweeter.

From Writing Our Own Haggadah by Rachel Barenblat, Williamstown, MA

We looked for a hagaddah (seder prayerbook) accessible to everyone, but had trouble finding the transliterated Hebrew, gender-neutral God language and universal themes of oppression and freedom we wanted. So we compiled our own that included a mix of prayers, readings and secular poetry.

We spilled a drop of wine for each of the ten plagues, then added modern societal afflictions, like homelessness, homophobia and HIV infection, to the list. We sang, "If God had only brought us out of Egypt but had not liberated all the nation's oppressed, Dayeinu! It would have been enough."

As we closed with grace after meals, we each gave thanks for the freedom we already have. Everyone had found redemption in the liberation stories and had added a tale of his or her own.

From Interfaith Seder by Lyssa Friedman, San Francisco

Here are two readings that interfaith families may want to include in their Passover seder:

Karpas Kavannah
Karpas (parsley that is dipped in salt water during the seder) kavannah (spiritual focus)--time for spring awakening, new directions--renewal and bursting forth of new ideas.

We take this time to honor others who travel with us from other faiths and cultural traditions. We acknowledge the fact that they bring a new perspective to our lives and a legacy of their own that enriches ours. We are grateful for the growth that we have experienced because they are in our lives.

Ten Plagues of Being Intermarried
1. Not comfortable with Hebrew.
2. Can't stomach the idea of gefilte fish.
3. Songs are unfamiliar.
4. Being dragged into a war in a faraway land.
5. People assuming I'm Jewish when I'm not.
6. Not being recognized as a full citizen.
7. My in-laws' (original) discomfort.
8. Losing my family traditions/identity.
9. Children have different set of beliefs (maybe even body parts) than I do.
10. Not feeling welcomed by the community.

From Five Interfaith Passover Readings You Can Add to Your Hagaddah by Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael, Philadelphia

Hebrew for "Blessing on Nourishment," the blessing after meals. Yiddish for "stuffed fish," a patty made of ground up varieties of fish, matzo meal and spices, boiled in fish broth. A popular dish on Passover, sometimes served on Shabbat and other holidays as well. Plural form of the Hebrew for "telling," it's the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. Hebrew for "telling," the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "intention," referring to having the proper mindset necessary for carrying out rituals or the commandments. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "enough for us," it's the refrain and name of a liturgical song from the Passover seder. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
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