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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DAN SAID WHAT?…Distant Cousins

Guest blogger, Dan was inspired to write this piece after attending an interfaith service memorializing the Israeli and Palestinian teenagers murdered during the summer of 2014.  Although the event took place several months ago, his thoughts are relevant today.

Courtesy of Interfaith Alliance

Courtesy of Interfaith Alliance

On July 30, 2014 my brother and I attended an Interfaith Memorial Service at Manhattanville College.  The purpose of the service was to memorialize the mutual loss of life on both sides of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas; a conflict ignited by the brutal and senseless murder of three Israeli teenagers, Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19 and the horrific torture and revenge killing of a sixteen-year-old Palestinian Boy, Mohammed Abu Khieder.

All four victims were innocent of any crime or offense… real or perceived.

The Memorial was a non-political, truly interfaith gathering; there were both religious and non-religious community leaders present.  Rabbis, Priests, Ministers, Imams and various local civic leaders and politicians were scheduled to speak to the human side of the conflict and to the roughly 250 people in attendance.

A Jesuit Priest, Faculty member of Manhattanville College and co-organizer of the Memorial began with the following introduction:

“Throughout history, there have been countless atrocities carried out in the name of religion.  Here, today, let’s show the world that religion can be a vehicle of peace, compassion and understanding.”

A strong opening.  I was impressed.  There was a genuine air of frankness and heartfelt sincerity to him in particular, and to the service in general.

The Memorial Service continued with various speakers:  Rabbis, Imams, Priests and Ministers.  Each of them took a turn quoting their individual faith’s scripture parts regarding the sanctity and value placed on peace, compromise and compassion.   Around the middle of the memorial, my brother’s friend and neighbor, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, got up to chant from the Quran.  It was beautiful and strangely familiar.   As soon as she finished, my brother leaned over to me and said, “That sounded a lot like when we read from the Torah.  We Jewish people have more in common with Muslims than any other people…”

A light bulb went off in my head, “EXACTLY!”  My mind began to race and I found it difficult to focus on the other speakers.

I thought, How have things deteriorated this far?

Muslims and Jews share a common ancestry, a common Patriarch (Abraham), similar dietary laws, a similar language and the same homeland.  We are cousins!  “Shalom Aleychem” and “Salaam Alaykum” could easily be mistaken for the same language; both mean “Peace Be Upon You”.

I became frustrated by my inability to answer a question that has plagued the Middle East for decades in the 10 minutes that had passed since my bother’s left-hook of an observation.

And so I refocused my attention to the Memorial Service just as a Presbyterian Minister, a denomination with no particular skin in the game offered an outstanding, intelligent, yet emotional, plea for prayer and more importantly, serious call to action.

Various community leaders went on to speak, sharing the minister’s sentiments and suggesting ways in which they planned to act locally and think globally; a realistic and doable task which could be accomplished by individuals from different faiths simply talking to one another in their neighborhoods.

The Memorial Service concluded with two minutes of silent prayer.  I was surprised when the Quaker representative leading it broke in with “Thank You” to conclude the ceremony.  Two minutes felt like 10 seconds.

Interfaith memorial service photo

My brother and I made the 15-minute drive home, chattering non-stop about the similarities between Muslims and Jews and our individual solutions to the crisis in the Middle East.  Our solutions were not plausible or realistic.  We resembled two infants pondering Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Back at the house, my brother, sister-in-law, and I talked well into the evening about the Memorial Service and their neighbor who chanted from The Quran.  We said our goodnights and I built my bed on the sofa.  The sofa was comfortable, but I couldn’t sleep.

That was last summer, and to be honest, I’m still having trouble sleeping.  This Memorial Service has brought into question my typically unwavering and staunch sense of justice regarding my personal “reality” about the conflict between Jews & Muslims in the Middle East.

Do not misunderstand me; I still believe that Hamas is a terrorist organization.  There cannot be a lasting peace in the Middle East with Hamas as the ruling power in Gaza under its current charter (unwillingness to recognize the State of Israel) and leadership.

I also believe with every fiber of my being that The State of Israel does not only have a right to exist, it NEEDS to exist.  The pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries across Eastern Europe are NOT ancient history.  Some Jews have grandparents who are still alive and able to share their memories and horrors of the Holocaust with younger generations.

You don’t even have to go back that far…

TODAY, there are Jews in France who have taken down the mezzuzot from their front door frames and have stopped wearing their Judaic jewelry in public, out of fear of personal, violent, acts of anti-Semitism.  Yes, in my heart of hearts, I believe now more than ever:  Am Yisrael Chai! (The People of Israel Live!).

Furthermore, it takes a lot of chutzpa for people living in the relative peace, security and cozy cocoon of a Western Democracy to judge Israel and criticize how it protects its citizens and borders while Hamas fires rockets from Palestinian homes and invades Israel’s territory through the use of an intricate and extensive tunnel system.

With that being said…

There are difficult truths, which Israel and Jews need to confront, both as a nation and as a people.

When sixteen year-old Khieder was tortured and murdered by extremist Jewish Israelis, the media questioned Israeli officials after the suspects were apprehended and had confessed to the brutal crime.  The Israeli officials stated that they were ‘shocked that Jews would commit such a heinous crime.’

When Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was gunned down by a Jewish extremist due to his willingness to accept and work toward a Two-State Solution, Israeli officials were questioned as to why more protection was not afforded their Prime Minister in such a volatile and critical time.  Their response: ‘It never occurred to us that a Jew would commit such a heinous crime.’

In order for a lasting peace to have a chance, this ridiculous and self-righteous brand of ignorance has to end.

The bottom line is that both parties are right and both parties are wrong.

Both Jews and Muslims have carried out many horrific acts, going back well before 1948 (the year of Israeli Statehood) and both Israelis and Palestinians have a right to a safe and secure homeland.  The reality of this situation, much like the border between Israel and Palestine is not transparent.

Two days before the Memorial Service, I was at a Pro-Israel Rally outside the UN in Manhattan.

Pro Israel picture

I found myself getting caught up in the “oneness” of the event.  We were 15,000 in attendance and felt strong; we were mishpocha (family).  The heavy hitters on the podium kept repeating Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rock-star sound byte:

“Israel uses rockets to protect its citizens and Hamas uses its citizens to protect its rockets.” 

I liked it and I agreed with it, but I had a hard time SAYING it.  I didn’t know why until now.  The reason it sticks in my throat is because it is RHETORIC.  The last thing this conflict needs at this serious and critical stage is more rhetoric.

Golda Meir once said, “There will not be peace with the Arabs until they love their children more than they hate us (Israelis).”

Perhaps there’s some truth to this.  Assuming there is, let’s hope someone, very soon, adds:

‘…And Israel firmly embraces a real and lasting Two-State Solution; a shared homeland in partnership with the Palestinian People.’

And most importantly, let’s hope there are people on both sides, distant cousins, who are ready, able and willing to build trust, understanding and a lasting peace.

It’s time we moved beyond catchy sound-bytes and crowd-pleasing propaganda.  There is hard work to be done by serious people and it’s getting late.

Salam Alaykum.  Shalom Aleychem.

Please check out “A Letter to My Palestinian-American Muslim Friend” online in Mamalode parenting magazine!

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I am proud to share my 2nd essay feature in Mamalode parenting magazine.

I wrote, “A Letter to My Palestinian-American Muslim Friend” about a dear friend in my community.  It was published today.

Even if you have already read the piece on Red said what?, please take a few minutes to:

  1. Click this link to Mamalode: A Letter to My Palestinian-American Muslim Friend
  2. Like and/or comment at the bottom of the article
  3. Then please SHARE, TWEET, and PIN!

The more “unique views” of the essay on Mamalode’s site during the next 30 days, the more Mama-love I receive from them.

Thank you for your continued support, especially during this busy season!  Happy Holidays!

All the best,

Red

A Letter to My Palestinian-American Muslim Friend

Martin Luther King Jr Quote

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Dear Friend,

Thank you for introducing yourself to me on the school yard when I was new to the community.  Had you not, I don’t know if I would have extended a hand.

When I initially saw you in the neighborhood, I avoided eye contact.  I couldn’t see passed the hijab. Your headscarf represented to me a religion of negativism and extremes, a culture of anti-Semitism, and a stifling of the modern woman.  I passed judgment, was ignorant and afraid.  I quickly concluded that we were from different worlds, and hence unable to find common ground; until we did.

Our sons’ fast friendship, much to my surprise, led to ours.  Several conversations, a few CrossFit WODs, and a shared hookah later, I learned some things.

First, your commitment to Islam is rooted in a spirituality that transcends all religions.

When I recently asked, “What did you learn from making pilgrimage to Mecca?” you shared with me along with the young people at the local mosque that in light of the experience, both positive and negative, you returned grateful for the gifts God gives us as free, healthy human beings and with an understanding that He loves us, imperfections and all.

At home, modesty, daily prayer, study, and diet are the tangible rituals you choose to demonstrate your love for God, but that love is also deeply evident in the thoughtful way in which you respect yourself, interact with others, approach parenting, nurture relationships, and care for patients.

Your words and actions remind me that we are all connected; Muslim, Christian, Jewish or otherwise.

Second, you have an open, accepting, and generous heart.

As a Christian woman raising Jewish children married to a man with a strong connection to Israel, I was worried that friendship might be tricky.  I was wrong.

From day one, you welcomed my family into your home.  You share your culture, answer questions, appreciate our traditions, and join us for holidays.  When my son swallowed a marble, you were at my door despite having worked a full day to help out and offer advice.  When I had jury duty, you spent the afternoon with my boys even though your children had busy schedules of their own.  You think of my family whenever you cook or travel, and thanks to your charming sweet tooth, my children affectionately refer to you as, “The Candy Fairy.”

The goodness that emanates from you inspires me to be better.

Third, you are an advocate for women; a role model for your son and daughters.

Your dress might be traditional, but your ideas and actions are progressive, willful, and strong.  I was moved when in an effort to understand practices, question inequities and evoke change, you approached Muslim women in the streets of Mecca and asked how they felt wearing a khimar, a long garment covering their head, neck, and shoulders, ran errands in pants to encourage dialogue, and questioned local leaders about the sanitation of the city.

Every day I watch you work tirelessly to support your family, use your education to help others, handle conflict and struggle with grace and perseverance, tackle new adventures with uncanny energy, act zany, be fun, and simply love life.

You are an exemplary, modern American woman who I am proud to call my friend.

Connection and communication helped me to confront prejudice, challenge stereotypes, and understand a culture that I knew only through media, politics and hearsay.  I have renewed hope for future generations when I see our sons playing, laughing, and treating each other as brothers.

The hijab is not a symbol, but a frame; for the beautiful person you are outside and within.

Much love,

Red

2015 BlogHer Voice of the Year Reception

2015 BlogHer Voice of the Year Reception