Taking the First Step: The Tenth Session Meets the Ten Plagues

By Julie Slotnik Sturm


In her monthly column, “Taking the First Step,” Julie Slotnik, a Jewish woman, writes about her experiences in the Introduction to Judaism class she is taking with her Lutheran boyfriend.

I’m feeling a little nervous about our Introduction to Judaism class tomorrow night. My boyfriend Marc and I are more than half way through the 16-week course and it’s been going really well for the most part. Each Wednesday, we arrive tired and hungry from work, we listen and think for two hours, and then go home and re-hash it all during dinner. But last week we had a big argument and I ended up in tears after class. It’s unclear if the tears were based solely on the fight or if they were partially due to sheer exhaustion. Regardless, there was an argument, there was crying and it was not fun. Here’s what happened:

The teacher split us into groups to discuss different aspects of Passover, the Jewish holiday which celebrates God freeing the Jews from Egyptian slavery. Our group of four was comparing different hagaddot*. There are many different styles and types of hagaddot and the teacher mentions that they handle the Ten Plagues differently–some have words, others have pictures or symbols. Some list the plagues in Hebrew, others in English.

One member of our group, who is not Jewish, noticed that two books listed the plagues in Hebrew, but that they appeared to be different. “Do the plagues change?” he asked. Doubtful, I thought. For all my resistance to Hebrew school, I was always an active participant come Passover time. I could read those four questions, find the afikomen* and make a “brick and mortar” sandwich of matzah* and haroset* like a pro. I was fairly sure that the Ten Plagues don’t change, they remain the same ten things you don’t want ruining a nice day at the beach. I read each plague aloud in Hebrew, comparing the two lists. They were indeed the same, but because of the design and script of the letters, looked very different. No big deal, in fact, not even a very interesting story, right? Wrong. I found out later that Marc didn’t like this little tutorial I gave the group. He thought I was showing off and should have given more people in the group a chance to talk. This really hurt my feelings. Partly because it was a mean thing to say and partly because it was true.

This wasn’t just a simple, small group exercise. When I was reading the Hebrew words for Blood, Hail, Locusts, and Slaying of the First Born — four of the ten plagues — something else was happening: I was enjoying myself. And that was something I rarely did in the presence of religion, at least not growing up. I never felt particularly comfortable with Judaism; none of my school friends were Jewish; and I always felt a little different, on the outside. But reading and writing Hebrew was something I was good at, something I enjoyed. When I’m in this class it reminds me of the things I love about being Jewish, rather than those I didn’t understand or were embarrassed about. I yelled out between sobs, “I’m in this class too, I get to have an experience too.”

Then I remember our first conversation with Rabbi Friedman, my hometown rabbi. When Marc and I first approached him to discuss the interfaith issue, he was impressed by our initiative, and commended us for thinking about it early in our relationship. According to him, we were being pro-active; we were being mature. But I didn’t feel so mature, crying in the middle of Third Avenue.

I’m feeling bad for myself; I’m also thinking about Marc. I may be upset, but I still love him. Coming to these classes can’t always be easy or interesting for him. I asked him if he wants me to learn about the Lutheran religion. He replies that it’s more important that I learn French, his native language. Maybe I’m not appreciative enough of the effort he is making. Maybe he is realizing that my religion and cultural upbringing are extremely important to me, and isn’t sure what to do with that. We’re headed down that forever path, but still haven’t had “the conversation” about the future and raising children. But it’s coming, I know it and he knows it. Getting engaged isn’t far away, and these topics will need attention.

So, here I am thinking about tomorrow and how I’m going to handle myself. Even though we made up from the fight days ago, I’m still worried about class tomorrow. Is the same thing going to happen? Do I have to stifle my participation to avoid another confrontation? Part of me wants to regress back to elementary school and take a vow of silence. I just won’t contribute at all; I won’t open my mouth; I’ll teach him a lesson. Certainly not the mature option. Plus, I can hear my mother saying, “the only one you’re hurting is yourself” — so that’s out. I guess the only other choice is to be myself: continue to listen, follow my instincts, respect my partner and try to get something out of each class.

Definitions of words used haggadot: plural for haggadah, the prayerbook used during a Passover seder: “ceremonial feast” which combines dinner with telling the story of Passover. matzah: unleavened bread eaten during Passover in commemoration of unleavened bread the Israelites took with them when they left Egypt in a hurry. haroset: a special Passover food which symbolizes the mortar the Israelites worked with when they were slaves in Egypt. It is often made with chopped apples, nuts and cinnamon. afikomen: literally dessert. It is the matzah that is hidden at the beginning of the Passover seder. Children search for it and then ransom it back to the adults.


About Julie Slotnik Sturm

Julie Slotnik Sturm is a freelance writer and producer in New York. She has been part of an interfaith relationship for over four years.