The hardest part about celebrating Easter and Passover with my extended interfaith clan in Florida is extricating ourselves from the multigenerational lovefest–and leaving behind all the leftovers when we fly home. My family gathers from England, California, New York and Washington. For three days this year we planned, shopped and cooked for the Easter dinner and the Passover Seder. When we drove to the airport to get the kids back to school at the end of their spring break we regretfully left behind the leftover brisket, roast potatoes and carrots, matzoh ball soup, charoset, and chocolate-toffee matzoh for my siblings and cousins with later school vacations. Oh, and a spiral-cut honey-baked Easter ham (from one of those “Hams R Us” stores), and lots of Easter candy.
Once again this year, my 87-year-old father was there to preside over our Seder. Each year seems unbearably precious to me, and we move heaven and earth to be there. We also illegally move giant glasstop dining tables from three condos into one, to fit all 20 family members. And my father hires a piano company to move a piano in for two weeks, so that he can play the jazz standards and Pennsylvania polkas and Irish reels that form the soundtrack to our multicultural lives. We make a joyful noise: one year we were threatened with eviction.
My sister from New York is raising her kids Jewish–my nephew is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. (My mother is his only Christian grandparent). My brother and sister-in-law from California are raising their three kids Catholic. (My father is their only Jewish grandparent). My seven-year-old niece is attending CCD classes, preparing for her First Holy Communion, and she said a lovely grace at Easter dinner, dressed in her spring dress and tiny gold cross.
My niece, and her siblings, attend a Catholic Montessori school, and they had just taken part in the school’s reenactment of The Last Supper during Holy Week. After years of Passover in Florida with us, they understand The Last Supper as a Seder.
So this year at school, my Catholic nephew, age 9, who has a prodigious memory, stood up and sang “Dayenu” at The Last Supper. His Catholic teachers know that his father is Jewish, and are accepting and encouraging of the Jewish knowledge he brings to their community. Apparently, they egged him on, asking for more authentic Passover material, at which point he recited the entire “Chad Gadya” in English (“…then came the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat…”).
It is doubtful that the apostles sang Dayenu (apparently a medieval German melody) and Chad Gadya at The Last Supper (though Chad Gadya is written in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, and may date back to that ancient period). And I worry that the violence of Chad Gadya (which may or may not be an allegory for all of the empires that conquered the Jews throughout history) may have puzzled my nephew’s Catholic schoolmates.
But I have to love my nephew’s pride in his Jewish knowledge and interfaith family, and his mastery of Passover ritual. It also happens that he found the afikoman this year, for the third consecutive year, and was rewarded by his Jewish Grandpa. Last year, he read the four questions (in English). At times in the past, he has worried about the fact that his father is Jewish, about his father’s anomalous religious status in their nuclear family. And he seemed comforted to learn, recently, that his father has a strand of Catholic ancestry. Though we were raised as Jews by our Protestant mother and Jewish father, our great-grandfather Michael Gorman probably was born a Catholic in Clonmel, Ireland (before emigrating to America and marrying a Protestant). With the convergence of Holy Week and Passover this year, interfaith children had a chance to better integrate their own interwoven families, the connections between the religions, and the Jewishness of Jesus.
My Catholic nephew will always have a visceral memory of his Jewish heritage–the surprising bite of horseradish, the comforting scent of soup, the rhythmic clapping of aunts and uncles, the thrill of discovering the hidden matzoh. And I bet my Jewish nephew will remember his little Catholic cousin reciting grace at Easter dinner. Whether given one religious label, like my nieces and nephews, or two (like my teens), I hope, I believe, that interfaith children immersed in family religious ritual, in their own complex ancestry, will naturally mature into ambassadors, teachers, and bridge-builders between religions.
Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.