Born into a Catholic family with a Jewish surname, I should have expected I would one day find myself leading a Passover seder.
To date, my husband Larry and I have hosted nine seders, eight 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.
But I didn’t always feel that way.
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 matzah 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.
But I married a Jewish man, and we were raising our kids Jewish. Determined to do right by my Catholic self and our Jewish family, I set out on a mission to create an interfaith-friendly seder.
First, I compiled a Haggadah 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, highlighted springtime symbolism, and offered readings that would appeal to different belief systems.
Interfaith marriage is about building bridges. Larry was open to the idea and respected my effort to design a Haggadah that made sense for me, but also maintained traditions he felt strengthened the Jewish identity of our sons – and encouraged new and experienced guests to discuss important Passover themes like freedom, rebirth and “tikkun olam,” healing the world.
It took a few years to earn our seder hosting chops, but we eventually found a balance.
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, 16 people – Jews, Catholics, Muslims, a son of Methodist missionaries, family, old friends and new faces – would gather around our table like a bona fide interfaith, intergenerational jamboree.
As suspected, it turned out to be just that. We waited to kick off the festivities so my Muslim neighbor could run home to say her afternoon prayers.
My father, a good ol’ 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.
Twentysomethings and teenagers were just as jazzed as the under-10 population to hunt for the afikomen.
Last Passover, this friend’s theory became practice when my son, then 9, asked to do more. He read the story of Exodus and recited the 10 plagues along with a couple of blessings in Hebrew. And on the second night, when we held an intimate seder with family, he wowed the crowd by taking the lead.
I was not raised Jewish. I did not convert to Judaism. But watching my son embrace his Jewish identity made this interfaith mama proud.
Larry and I will soon welcome the usual crew to our pleasant Passover. Should Elijah slip through the open door, I hope he’ll stay for a sip or two of wine. There are 16 people who value tradition, freedom, inclusivity, harmony and humanity he’s going to want to meet.
Jennifer Reinharz writes for children and blogs for grown-ups.