A Pleasant Passover

Seder table picture

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Kveller

Born into a Catholic family with a Jewish surname, I should have expected that I would one day find myself leading a Passover Seder.

To date, Mac and I have hosted eight Seders, seven of which I’ve had the honor to lead. This role was bestowed upon me after my Jewish husband concluded that in light of my organized, creative, teacher-like nature, I was the right person for the job. The trade off was food prep, which he happily agreed to tackle. Not one who enjoys cooking, I acquiesced. Besides, the man makes a mean brisket.

I love a good Passover Seder.

The parallels to the Easter story coupled with the springtime symbolism and my personal affection for The Ten Commandments movie make Passover a welcomed and relatable holiday.

The Seder service creates a setting where both the newcomer and the experienced guest feel connected.

It’s a forum to discuss physical and emotional freedom, think about the responsibility one has to repair the world, question injustice, and reflect on values and relationships. The Story of Exodus and the blessings translate into modern life and are meaningful for young and old, regardless of ethnicity or faith.

Lastly, the traditions are designed to keep children engaged, which make it easy to add elements of fun.

I didn’t always love a Seder.

In the beginning, I found it a tough ceremony to swallow. I felt like the token Christian; the stranger in the wrong outfit eating the matza out of order. The structure of the service confused me and the intensity associated with staying on task gave me the perfect excuse to keep quiet. I felt excluded by the deluge of Hebrew spoken by those in the know and in general, lost; drowned in a Red Sea of rigidity, pomp, and circumstance. For years, I couldn’t wait to suck down that fourth cup of wine and hightail it home.

Determined to do right by my Catholic self and our Jewish children, I set out on a mission to create an outreach friendly Seder.

I compiled a Hagaddah chock full of catchy ditties, kid friendly verses, and hands on plagues. I switched up the order of the service, made the blessings accessible in English and Hebrew, added passages about civil rights and the human condition, and offered readings that would appeal to different belief systems.

It took a few years to earn our Seder hosting chops, but eventually Mac and I found something that worked for us.

Fast forward to Passover 2014.

Walking by a local church the morning of Passover I noticed a passage carved into the steeple.

How wonderful it is

How pleasant for God’s people

To live together in harmony

Psalm 133

I thought about our Seder guests. That evening, sixteen people; Jews, Catholics, Muslims, a son of Methodist missionaries, family, old friends, and new faces would gather around our table in Pleasantville like a bona fide interfaith, intergenerational jamboree.

As suspected, it turned out to be just that.

We waited to kickoff the festivities so my Muslim neighbor could run home to say her afternoon prayers.

My father, a good ole boy and the son of Methodist missionaries who has a mezuzah affixed to his doorpost out of respect for our Jewish ancestors, joined us for his first Seder and my first holiday with him since I was a baby.

Adults and young people alike wore sunglasses to symbolize darkness, the ninth plague and enjoyed an enthusiastic food fight of marshmallow hail.

Twenty somethings and teenagers were just as jazzed as the under ten population to hunt for the Afikomen.

The widow and sister of a dear friend, a devout Irish Catholic who always attended our Seders but passed away a few years ago, recited the concluding poem together, a job historically reserved for him.

And when the Seder ended that sister, a retired high school special education teacher, mother of four and grandmother who attends daily mass, and a Passover newcomer stood up and addressed the group. She shared,

We are a society of self-absorbed immediacy. It seems that all anyone cares about today are the latest trends, the hottest stars, and themselves. It is important to pass on traditions, talk about ancestry, tell stories, and make connections to the past. Doing this creates a necessary foundation for our children. For me, the Seder represents hope and a renewed determination to keep ALL the traditions we have alive and fun.

Then she took our Hagaddah home to use as a teaching aid in her Catechism class.

Three days later, a gust of anti-Semitism blew through the dining room and knocked me off the kumbaya cloud as I read about yet another account of worldwide religious intolerance and persecution.

This time it was an article about Jewish residents in the Ukraine who were stopped outside the synagogue after Passover services by masked men, and handed a leaflet citing that anyone over the age of sixteen was required to register themselves and personal property as Jewish or face deportation.

I was not raised Jewish. I did not convert to Judaism. But as a person raising Jewish children, the institutional nature of the attempt made me sick. It made me angry. It hit home for this Mama Bear.

So to the bigots who ordered, printed, and distributed the leaflets; raspberries and middle fingers to you.

And to all those who continue to hurt others because of or in the name of religion, I invite you to climb down from your bully pulpit.

Take off the mask, put down your weapon

Grab the marshmallows, slip on the sunglasses

And join my family for a Pleasant Passover; there are sixteen people who value freedom, tradition, inclusivity, harmony, and humanity that we’d like you to meet.

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Laundry Room Mishpacha; a Rosh Hashanah Tale

rosh hashanah image

InterFaithFamily picture

After Hurricane Sandy, roughly six weeks post Rosh Hashanah 2012, we temporarily moved into my in-laws’ apartment.  The building is home to a number of observant Jewish families, my in-laws included.

Waiting in the laundry room, I noticed a grandma folding clothes while her four-ish year old twin grandchildren, a boy and girl played nearby.

“I’m going to sing a Rosh Hashanah song,” announced the light eyed little guy.

After he got a few lines into his song I said, “That’s a nice tune.”

“He’s a good singer,” Grandma replied.

“Yes.  I haven’t heard that one before.”

Right then his sister whipped her auburn curls, looked me dead in the eye and declared, “That’s because you’re not Jewish.

“Watch what you say to people!” Grandma barked.

Watch what you teach her, I thought.

I bit my lip and explained, “The Rosh Hashanah song I know is different.  It goes like this…”

I sang a few lines of my holiday ditty.  Thankfully the dryer’s buzzer went off.  I took my clothes, wished them a good day and left – fuming.

Why do I have to be Jewish to know a Rosh Hashanah song?  Why did the girl assume I was different than she?  We were in the laundry room, not synagogue and it wasn’t Shabbat.  Could she really have drawn her conclusion simply because I was dressed less conservatively than her grandmother?

It wasn’t clear.

What was clear was this little girl had been taught either directly or indirectly to identify, judge, and draw a conclusion about a person based on one’s appearance relative to the other grown-ups in her life.  As a Christian woman married to a Jewish man who takes pride in raising Jewish children, I felt offended and sad.

This week, my family will celebrate the Jewish New Year.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time of reflection and new beginnings.  Whether you observe or not, perhaps it’s a good time for us to think about the symbolic gestures we feel bring us closer to God.  Although seemingly benign when practiced with a similar group, the question remains;

Do these gestures create an unhealthy divide, particularly when our children form false and hurtful conclusions based on them?

When all is said and done, I personally don’t think God gives a rat’s ass about what clothes we wore, the food we ate, the holidays we observed, or how many times a day we prayed.

It is how we view and treat each other while we are here that matters.

But let’s be realistic; life is wonderfully diverse and so our lifestyles will vary and symbols sustain.  So in an effort to close the gap, let’s be mindful about consistently teaching young people that all religious and cultural perspectives are valid and deserve respect.

Grandma, you and I may have different ways of approaching our day to day living, but my hope is that we embody the same values.  With this New Year upon us, let’s show our children that when we look beyond the laundry room, we are all mishpacha.