I have been to more than a dozen Passover seders. I know the Four Questions by heart. Neither of these facts might seem so surprising, but — as most people I’ve interviewed for these pages already know — I’m not Jewish. So my level of knowledge is somewhat surprising.
It all started back in preschool.
My mother raised me as a Greek Orthodox Christian and my father was Catholic. Although we went to Sunday mass and celebrated both Christmas and Orthodox Easter in my native San Francisco, we weren’t particularly religious.
In fact, my folks had no problem sending me to the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, Berkeley Branch, for preschool. Mom chose the Jewish preschool because she hated the music that all the Christian preschools played. She said, “It was one bad guitar song after another, but when I went to the Jewish school, I heard the students sing a hauntingly beautiful song and I loved it.”
At preschool I found myself getting very involved with Jewish traditions and culture. I still have one of the menorahs I crafted by hand: a green painted wood shingle with glued-on hardware to serve as candleholders. I also acted in the school’s stage adaptation of Moses’ journey — in the illustrious role of Hopping Frog No. Seven on the Left.
While much of my memory of that time is scarce, I do have flashes of singing songs like “Dayenu,” eating matzah and jumping up and down in a green leotard.
It was at preschool that I got my first exposure to the Four Questions, when we read them out loud together. We learned why that night was different than all other nights, why we didn’t eat leavened bread and why we dipped twice.
After preschool and just before kindergarten, my dad got a new job in Chicago and we moved to the northern suburb of Winnetka. The only people we knew were Jewish family friends who lived near our new home.
They welcomed us with open arms and invited us to their home for every occasion. They hosted Thanksgivings, Fourth of July celebrations, random dinners and, of course, High Holiday meals and their very memorable Passover seders, which we attended every year.
At those dinners, I read the Four Questions from the Haggadah since I was always the youngest. I read them every year for a decade, despite the fact that I hated reading out loud. Even at the most recent Passover I attended at their house, when I was 26 (and definitely not the youngest at the table), I was still expected to read the questions because it has become a tradition.
As a child, I didn’t entirely understand why I was such a focus of activity. It seemed unusual for a small child to have such a prominent role in a religious observance; as an Orthodox Christian, my only responsibilities were to unwrap presents at Christmas, crack red eggs at Easter and stay out of the kitchen when my mom was cooking any holiday meal.
A Passover seder felt more like a play, with everyone, even the smallest person, taking on an important part for the evening. I think that’s why my family liked going to Passover seders. We weren’t just expected to be guests. We were encouraged to be participants in sharing a very important story.
I do find it slightly ironic that I spent my childhood being encouraged to ask questions and now that’s how I make my living, as a reporter. And for a Jewish newspaper, no less.
Passover is just a week away, and as a fairly recent transplant, I’m still getting used to Phoenix’s unforgiving summers and endless skies. It’s all been new for me and my girlfriend — having to make a different city and state home despite the fact that we didn’t know anybody when we got here. But as I work on the stories for these Passover issues, I am reminded of those cherished memories at the seder table. And it feels just a little bit more like home. JN