How to Transmit My Greek Orthodox Heritage, without Confusing My Jewish Daughter

By Tanya H. Keith


One of my favorite sayings is, “Man plans, God laughs.” Now that I have become a mother, I think the more accurate quote for my life is “A mother plans, God laughs with her child.”   

My daughter Aviva is presently only five-and-a-half months old, but there have already been countless times when all my perfectly laid plans have been blown to bits by the reality of parenthood.

The real shocker for me came as I started to think about Passover plans and the coming spring. I had the game plan: my husband and I had agreed before we were married to give our future children one religion. My own interfaith parents had raised me in a hodge-podge of their faiths–Judaism on the maternal side, and Christianity and Greek Orthodox on the paternal side. Add in the Unitarian perspective they threw in jointly, and it was one busy spring! It was not something I wanted to do with my children. Living Jewishly for the last dozen years has come easily for my husband and me, so raising our daughter that way seemed easy and appropriate.

Then, it started–that sinking feeling that things weren’t going to be as easy as planned. It was not a pushy family member, my own interfaith marriage, my lack of an extended Jewish family, or anything related to our Jewish life. It was my big fat Greek heritage, coming back to haunt me.

My Jewish grandmother had passed away when I was thirteen, leaving me to learn Jewish practice almost entirely on my own. My Greek Orthodox grandmother lived until I was in my early twenties, and while she was very confrontational to my multi-religious family, she did have almost an extra decade to teach family traditions.

Christianity has always been and continues to be a disconnect for me, but I loved to listen to my grandmother telling me about Greece and Greek customs. I have the photo of where we are from, as well as my great-grandfather’s “worry beads,” and I cook her pilaf recipe about once a month now. I have always thought that I could show my children these things and that doing so would be enough exposure to Greek culture.

Then spring arrived, and the store shelves here in the Midwest once again filled with the pastel nightmare that is commercialized Easter. Like commercialized Christmas, it holds zero attraction for me. But it did spark my memories of childhood Easters at my grandmother’s house.

Easter was usually a time of great antagonism in my interfaith family of origin, and I had blocked out most of my memories of family celebrations. However, when my husband and I went to the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the scene where the family is celebrating Easter together brought back fond memories of being a young kid celebrating Orthodox Easter with my grandmother.

Greeks celebrate Easter based on the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar that most Christians are familiar with. Orthodox Easter is therefore often not celebrated on the same weekend as the standard Easter.

The customs are not the same either. No pastels and bunnies, but there are eggs. The eggs, which represent the resurrection, are dyed red, to symbolize the blood of Christ. Greeks will rap their eggs against their friends’ eggs and say “Christós Anésti!” (Christ is risen). The response is “Alithós Anésti” (Truly he is risen). The last uncracked egg is considered lucky. My grandmother was so happy doing this with us as children, and what kid wouldn’t love an “egg war?”

My happiest Christmas memories are of skating at Rockefeller Center, looking at the windows at Macy’s, and seeing everything all lit up. Nice safe things to do with my totally Jewish daughter. But, how could I want to show my sweet Jewish child a family Easter tradition that involves exclamations that Christ has risen? Just when I thought I was so good at this interfaith stuff, it’s my own multi-cultural upbringing throwing a wrench into the works.

It makes me sad to think that my daughter will not grow up with the same exposure to the vast array of cultures that I did, but how can I separate the cultural experience from the confusion and tension of growing up in an interfaith family? It is now clear to me just how difficult it must have been for my parents to raise my sister and me with any sort of religious stability.

As I plan the menu and guest list for our annual seder (Passover meal), I am a little wistful for all of my long-deceased grandparents. I know my mother’s mother would have loved the Passover celebration that my sister and I are planning together. And for the first time in a decade of Easters, I wish my father’s mother could be with us to shout and crack eggs with my daughter. Sure, I would probably cringe a little, now that I know the translations for those shouts, but then it wouldn’t be my responsibility to share that culture with my sweet Aviva.

My daughter is still too small to really care what we celebrate. It will be several years before she can even understand that while both are beautiful cultures, Jewish life and Greek life are really very different in practice. Hopefully, in the course of those years, I will figure out a way to show my Jewish daughter my pride in my Greek heritage without also passing on the religious confusion of my childhood.


About Tanya H. Keith

Tanya H. Keith lives in Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband Doug Jotzke and their menagerie of cats and a hedgehog. All are eagerly awaiting the October birth of their first child. She is the event coordinator for Des Moines' soccer stadium, a soccer referee, a marathon runner, and occasionally a freelance interior designer. As the Outreach Chairperson of Temple B'Nai Jeshurun, it is her top priority for all Jewish families (interfaith, by choice, or otherwise) to feel comfortable in the Des Moines community and wherever she is.