Easter, Passover and the Bittersweet Taste of Choose-Your-Own-Holiday

Why is this night different from every other night?

a) Umm…we’re not having leftovers?

b) It isn’t–I just like saying that because it proves I’m a little Jewish

c) It’s still Passover, silly–now pass me a chocolate-covered matzoh

d) All of the above

When I started blogging regularly about 14 months ago, all the writers-blog gurus agreed on one thing: Never EVER blog about politics or religion. “You want to reach out to people, not alienate them.” Right. Right. Totally.

Except talking ABOUT religion is not the same thing as talking religion, if you see what I mean. And here we are in the middle of our country’s two major spring holidays, and I’m feeling a little…wistful.

(orig. image courtesy FLIKR creative commons)

(orig. image courtesy FLIKR creative commons)

Trying to get a handle on this feeling, I wonder: is it because my kids are grown and launched and I have no one to hide eggs for? How I LOVED doing that! Learned a few tricks along the way, like:

  • put the chocolate eggs out at the last minute or the crows will get them (or the slugs, but I really don’t want to talk about that)
  • re-hashes of egg hunts, staged in the living room for several days after Easter, are just as fun as the real thing, even with empty plastic “eggs”, proving that it’s the hunt, not the candy, that fascinates my kids
  • if you don’t mind getting sticky, Peeps can be re-shaped into dinosaurs
(orig. image courtesy FLIKR creative commons)

(orig. image courtesy FLIKR creative commons)

Sure do miss those days. But they are LOOOONG gone. And my wistful feeling is pretty recent. So I wonder: am I envious of my friends around the country who are inviting me to Passover seders? The Mate and I used to have them, starting before we had kids. Since we’re not Jewish, this takes a little explaining.

(orig. image courtesy wikipedia)

(orig. image courtesy wikipedia)

First of all…OK, yes, I am Jewish by heritage–at least Jewish enough for Hitler, as I used to tell my students. My German grandma, my Oma, was Jewish, and when her husband’s job brought him to the US in the 1930s, and then he died right before WWII broke out, she made the decision to stay. If she had gone back, I probably would not exist.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize this. Oma (who lived with us) was not a religious Jew, and she did not raise my dad that way. He never had a Bar Mitzvah. No one spoke of Judaism in our household with any sense of connection that I, as a child, could pick up on.

There were all these clues, of course. Oma made braided bread–she didn’t call it challah, but that’s what it was. She fussed and guilt-tripped like the Jewish grandma she was. And then there were our cousins in Israel that no one ever bothered to explain to me. I grew up thinking we were “just German.” And right around the time I became old enough to start asking questions, my Oma was killed in a car accident.

As I slowly took in the reality of my heritage, I became interested in some of its ceremonies. That’s when a college roommate, raised Quaker like me but converted to Judaism, showed us how to hold a seder. We were enchanted by its message of hope and survival and, above all, insistence on inclusive justice. “Always remember YOU were a stranger in a strange land.”

Of course, not being “real” Jews, we felt free to treat the ceremony as irreverently as we wanted. One year when we couldn’t find a shank bone for the seder plate, we made one out of Legos.

(orig. image courtesy wikipedia)

(orig. image courtesy wikipedia)

I miss those days too. When our boys hit high school, one declared he was no longer interested in religious ceremony. We joined another family’s seder for awhile, and then we moved to this island, where, if I wanted matzoh, I’d have to take the ferry to the mainland and drive some miles to find a store that even knew what it was.

Plain old yearning for the past when my kids were young and close by–that I understand. But I think there’s a little more going on right now, when I drive past the church and see the purple drape over the cross. Raised in a household where the highest religious ceremony was holding hands for a moment of silence before dinner, I think I’m a little envious of those for whom these yearly rituals have real power. I can sit in on a friend’s seder. I can attend a friend’s Easter mass. But they aren’t MY ceremonies, and they won’t be. I would be lying if I said I wished they were, but I’m not lying when I say that those who do “own” these ceremonies have something that I don’t have.

Can you miss something you never had? I don’t know. 

Interested to know your thoughts on the role of ritual in your life, especially this time of year. Please share.

8 thoughts on “Easter, Passover and the Bittersweet Taste of Choose-Your-Own-Holiday

  1. You knew I’d weigh in on this one, didn’t you, Gretchen, lol. You have a wonderfully rich heritage! I was raised Baptist, but when I hit the evolution vs. creation crisis in high/school college, I realize they are completely incompatible and began to seriously question everything I’d been taught. If Genesis was untrue, I was going to scrap the whole book. So I began reading extensively on science questions as well as the historicity of scripture. I think you know the conclusions I reached. My search took me deep into Old Testament customs and prophecy and I discovered the beauty of the Passover traditions and saw so clearly the picture of Christ within the imagery. So I stole them! I haven’t always been perfectly Kosher, but I’ve integrated Seder dinners into our Easter celebration for several years now. (Though we skipped this year because of our spring vacation.) That dip into Judaism, ironically, played a small part in my own ownership of Easter.

  2. Michelle, yeah, I’m not surprised–that you responded, or at your response. I’ve learned from many Christian friends how Judaism has enriched their experience of their own rituals. Kinda cool to see how it can go both ways. And of course there’s quite a lot of cross-pollination at Christmas/Channuka too…along with all that good pagan stuff. But isn’t it ironic, about the Google images? I wanted a picture of a purple-draped cross and I just kept getting bunnies and eggs!

  3. I grew up Lutheran, baptized, confirmed, Sunday School and church, too, every week. New outfits and shoes and hat and gloves for Easter Sundays, but I don’t remember ever really listening to a sermon. Dropped out of all that in college. Eventually, I married into a non-religious Jewish family and went to many seders at Len’s cousin’s home. I loved the warmth and community around that table. And the food — after the bitter herbs and stuff — was absolutelly delicious. I liked the fact that Jews had been having Passover in the same way for thousands of years. That’s what I like about Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, too. I’m not Christian or Jewish or anything but I guess I like tradition and some ritual. Does this answer your questions?

    • Yes, because you put your finger on an important–maybe THE important–aspect of my feeling drawn to these rituals: the tradition. Tradi–SHUN!!! It carries so much emotional weight. Thanks, Lorna.

  4. Braided bread is not just Challah, it is quite common in Austria ( I don’t know about Germany) and is called Striezel, can be had in every bakery. And not just at Easter, but year round.

  5. Good point, Monika. In fact, I just braided some bread this morning at the bakery However, the stuff Oma made was definitely challah, although she didn’t make it on Fridays. Thanks for the comment! Mmmmm, Striezel.

  6. Well the grass is always greener…Having grown up with the annual Seder, the annual Purim Carnival, the annual Hannukah festivities and so on, I was so enthralled by the simplicity and sincerity of the Klopfer pre-meal silence and hand-holding. I do remember your Oma Edith. To me she seemed the quintessential Jewish grandmother.

  7. Ha, yes–I probably would have felt smothered by THAT much tradition! But it’s funny about Oma, isn’t it? I just didn’t have any context at the time for understanding her. Thanks for visiting, Leslie!

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