“Who Knows What Easter Means?

By Charlotte Honigman-Smith


“Who knows what Easter means?”

I was six or seven, sitting with a bunch of other little girls in Brownie uniforms, pasting pastel tissue paper and dried beans in flower patterns on cardboard. Always eager to give the answer, I put my hand up, and when the troop leader called on me, I described chocolate, rabbits, and Easter egg hunts. “Well, those are nice things,” she said, in a dismissive tone of voice I didn’t understand, “but they’re not the important part of Easter. Does anyone else want to tell us what Easter really means?”

Another little girl spoke up, and gave an explanation of the holiday I had never heard before. As she excitedly explained crucifixion and resurrection, and the other little girls nodded and looked reverential, I felt stupid not to have known about this, and frightened. Why did they all know this, and not me? What connection did this have to hunting eggs with my cousins and wearing a frilly pastel dress (usually the same one I would wear to my Uncle Jim’s seder) and new patent leather shoes? When I told my mother about what had happened, she was upset and angry, and I never went back to Brownies.

Easter is the holiday that evokes in me the most ambivalence about my identity as a Jewish women with a Catholic father and extended family. Christmas, despite the much-discussed “December Dilemma,” is much less emotionally charged for me. It is more demanding—hunting for the right tree, ordering chocolates online for far-flung family, shopping for stuffed toys for college friends’ children. It also elicits occasional intense resentment–why do I have to put so much energy and money into celebrating this holiday that isn’t mine or my mother’s? But when I stand beside my father at Christmas morning Mass at Saint Monica’s on Geary Boulevard, it’s a peaceful and spiritual moment.

The sophisticated distinctions I’ve set up in my mind to allow the Catholic influences in my upbringing and family to co-exist with my strong Jewish identity and commitment are still there at Christmas Mass, but when the voice reading the Gospels soars out with “unto you a child is born,” I feel included and blessed. The story of the Holy Family…people without shelter, soon to find themselves political dissidents and fugitives through no action of their own, protecting as best they can a child born in a stable in a strange town on a cold winter night…speaks to my heart. Mary, (Miriam, as her family would have called her in Hebrew) a young woman struggling with a precarious destiny in dark times, is for me both a heroic Jewish figure and the focus of reverence and adoration that she is in my father and grandmother’s deeply Mary-oriented Irish Catholic tradition. Sitting quietly while waiting for my father to come back from the communion rail, looking at the creche scene by the altar, greeting family friends, I feel included, if not exactly one of the faithful.

Easter is harder. Edgier. More conflicted. I attend Mass with my father then as well, but the message from the altar at this season is harder to either internalize or smile through as a visitor, as I would at a Buddhist temple or a mosque. Christ is risen, say the words of the Mass. I don’t accept this as my doctrine any more than I accept the Virgin Birth, but where the latter is, for me, wrapped in an easily believable and beautiful story about a family and their child, the Easter story seems far more alien and difficult. Why this should be so is not entirely clear to me, even now. My knowledge of the ancient, deadly charges of deicide, the accusation that the Jews killed Christ, is part of it. So is having been told that I was going to hell as a child by classmates.

I think that much of my reaction can be traced to the fact that Easter, for the Eastern European Jewish communities my mother’s grandparents came from, was a potentially deadly time. Pogroms and smaller local violence broke out at Easter, incited by alcohol and holiday sermons blaming the Jews for the Crucifixion. While I’m now several generations removed from any physical danger, the unease that many Jews feel about the holiday continues to be very real for me. I absorbed this from stories told by the elders in my community, and from books and films. And while I listen to Easter Mass, a voice in the back of my head continues to mutter: On this, of all days of the year, what are you doing here? Of course, I know what I’m doing here. I’m celebrating my dad’s holiday with him. But that doesn’t entirely erase the old, fearful, angry connotations of this holiday.

Also, as accustomed as I am to it, 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 in. This seems to run both ways in my family–after hearing Dr. Laura scornfully announce on her radio show that Reform Jews don’t believe in an afterlife, my Catholic grandma called me in something of a panic to check if this were so. Of course, she would never have needed to make such a call to my Catholic cousins in San Diego. Regardless of their personal beliefs, she knows the doctrine they were raised in, and no radio talk show could shake her up over what core value of hers they might not share. And 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.


About Charlotte Honigman-Smith

Charlotte Honigman-Smith is a writer and Jewish activist living in San Francisco. She is the editor of Maydeleh: a zine for nice Jewish grrrls, and of JewishAnd, an anthology of writing by Jewish women from mixed families. In her spare time, she teaches high school English. Her work has most recently appeared in Joining the Sisterhood: Young Jewish Women Write Their Lives, edited by Tobin Belzer and Julie Pelc, SUNY Press, 2003.