Passover: Three Generations of Interfaith Family
Passover and Easter are fast approaching, and I am still immersed in speaking and traveling in support of my book, Being Both. So I am reposting some essays from the archives. This one dates from the spring of 2010. Enjoy!
Our spring break starts today, and my two teens are genuinely ecstatic anticipating our annual family gathering in Florida. Every year, my parents reserve beachside condos, have a rental piano delivered, and invite all four of their children, the spouses, and seven grandchildren for a weeklong family swim, gab and jam session. If we’re lucky, and this year we are, we get to celebrate both Passover and Easter together. For the Seder, all of my mother’s family, her sister and children and grandchildren, join us. My father will lead the Seder with Haggadot shipped down each year in a box full of beach towels.
As in many families, we go around the table, each person reading the next Haggadah passage in turn. We clap along when we sing Dayenu. We fill the cup and open the door for Elijah. We sing Had Gadya, the allegorical cumulative Aramaic song about the water that quenched the fire that beat the stick, and recite all the Who Knows One? riddles in a single breath.
It is neither the longest nor the shortest Seder in the world, nor is it particularly progressive, though I have introduced an orange to the Seder plate, as a reminder of those who have been excluded. I suppose it is a fairly typical Reform Seder in America. The funny thing is, my father is the only one at the table, of the twenty or more family members, who is “100% Jewish by blood.” The rest of us are a family tapestry of three-quarter Jews, half-Jews, quarter-Jews, Jews-at-heart, Jewannabes, agnostics, atheists, secular and practicing Catholics, and other assorted Christians. What we have in common, besides our family ties, is a high degree of familiarity and comfort with this central Jewish ritual meal, built up over the the fifty years of the happy marriage of my interfaith parents. As far as I’m concerned, everyone at the table is part of the interfaith spectrum, part of my tribe.
My father, the patriarch at 86, has spent fifty years teaching all of us the art of the Passover meal, tending this motley flock, quietly spreading, by example, his understanding and joy in Jewish practice. He has succeeded, to the point where my young French-Canadian-Italian-German-Irish-Scottish-English cousin, who does not have one drop of “Jewish blood,” whatever that is, but who grew up celebrating Passover with my family each year, went off to college, and, too far from home to join us, tried calling her campus Hillel to see if she could have Seder with them. The answer was no. Which reminds me of the time I was rejected from a Seder table for being a patrilineal half-Jew. But that’s another story.
And so I return to my recurrent (some would say obsessive) themes. Interfaith families can be close and happy and successful. Interfaith families can be “good for the Jews” in that they educate both interfaith children and extended Christian family about Judaism. But also, many Jewish institutions still exclude rather than welcome, even at Passover, when it is traditional to “welcome the stranger.” And this exclusion drives some of us to seek out the network of independent interfaith family communities in which to raise our children.
I am troubled, as are many others, by the concluding Seder words ”next year in Jerusalem.” Most of my interfaith tribe rebels against the idea of an Israeli state that promulgates exclusion based on religious identification. So no matter what my mouth says, my brain will probably be thinking, ”next year with my family, in Florida again, please.” For Passover, there’s no place I’d rather be.
Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.