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We Aren't Religious. At All. No, Really.

April 7, 2009

We aren't religious. At all. No, really. We only observe kashrut outside the confines of Chinese, Cuban and Italian restaurants. There is no electronic device we won't use on a Saturday. The candles are lit on the odd occasion we happen to be home on a Friday night and not planning on leaving. (We don't trust the cat around open flames.)

There are, however, certain traditions we like to observe. Perhaps we do them as much for nostalgic or sentimental reasons as for religious, but they bring us comfort. One of them is our family seder. The Jewish members of our family (me, my parents, my cousins) like to reminisce about Uncle Moe, who had the sweetest disposition, but insisted every word of the haggadah be read (usually in Hebrew) before anyone could start the meal. The Christian members (my husband, my cousins' spouses) like to compare stories about the first time Aunt Ida passed them her overly potent version of the Hillel sandwich. (Which is matzah with horseradish, and could she grate horseradish.) We may not anticipate the seder with the same jubilation of scoring playoff tickets on the 50-yard line, but we definitely look forward to it.

Seder Table by Ron Almog
Some people who aren't religious at all like to have a beautiful traditional seder table, like this one. An embroidered matzah cover like Joy Fields' aunt's is in the foreground, a seder plate with symbolic foods in the middle. Photo: Flickr/Ron Almog.

I don't think any of us realized how much it meant to us until it was my cousin's turn to host. He's not religious. At all. No, really. He considers himself a "secular humanist." He did good for goodness's sake even before atheists started posting that idea on billboards. His bar mitzvah speech scientifically debunked his Torah portion, nearly putting the rabbi into cardiac arrest. But he's always been a bit sentimental. Ever since his dear mother passed away, he enjoys bringing out her embroidered matzah cloth, her elaborate seder plate and the beloved candlesticks she used since her wedding.

According to family rules, the host gets to pick the siddur that will be used and lead the ceremony. Cuz actually printed off a couple dozen copies of "The Ten Minute Seder," an email circulation most religious people would assume was meant to be a joke. You know the type of thing: "the slaves are free, now the meal's for you and me--amen, dig in." and so on.

But it listed most of the blessings and all of the plagues and called for four cups of wine, so Cuz thought it would be OK. At the very least, he assumed it would be entertaining, what with the four cups of wine in 10 minutes.

We were not amused.

My nephew had been practicing The Four Questions for months and spent most of his pre-seder social time assuring everyone he was the youngest there. My recently bat mitzvahed daughter would have liked us to read the entire book of Exodus, but would have settled for at least a prolonged re-telling of the tale. Christian family members expressed doubt that we were allowed to end without singing "Die! Yay! New!" a song which obviously rejoiced that the Pharoah is dead, long live the Moses. We were too stunned by the 10-minute service to ask them what they thought "Chad Gadyah" meant, but are pretty sure that will be a highlight next year. With my nephew's permission, we may make that a Fifth Question. We have no problem adding new traditions, which I suppose is a bit of an oxymoron; it's just losing all the old traditions that throws us.

Somehow, I don't think my dear departed aunt would have been too happy, either. She wasn't religious. At all. No, really. When she and the gang in Boca felt they had reached an age when they shouldn't have to cook, they used to bring in KFC buckets for their seder meals. But they still did the service. I can't imagine her spending night after night embroidering the matzah cloth thinking, "won't this be nice when they bring it out for 10 minutes every year."

Needless to say, Cuz may be out of the rotation for awhile. He's welcome to bring the matzah cloth and the candle sticks, but the email jokes just aren't welcome. OK, maybe on Pesach, we are a little religious. Maybe that's what makes this night different from all other nights.

One of 54 sections of the Torah read, during Shabbat services, in order on a weekly basis throughout the year. Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." 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. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. 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 word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Hebrew for "Passover," the spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Hebrew for "prayer book," the plural is "siddurim." 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.
Joy Fields

Joy Fields is a CPA in Kingwood, Texas, who enjoys writing. Her humorous essays and poems have appeared in publications such as The Houston Chronicle, Writers' Digest, and The Wall Street Journal. This year, she will be celebrating her 20th anniversary in an interfaith marriage.

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