Wednesday, March 23, 2016

CHAG PURIM SAMEACH

Say what? It really just means Happy Purim. Yes, it’s that simple. Sometimes when Hebrew sounds complicated, it isn’t; it feels complicated because it’s a language with which you have no familiarity. But what about this odd holiday that tells you to get so drunk you can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai? Who are Haman and Mordecai? And why would our tradition advocate hating anyone to the point of cheering as they were hanged?

To understand the background it’s helpful to go back to the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and read the book of Esther. In the Hebrew Bible, Esther is called a Megillah, or scroll. It’s found among the books of Writings, between Ecclesiastes and Daniel. In the Protestant Bible Esther is located between Nehemiah and Job, and in the Catholic Bible it is between Judith and 1 Maccabees. Sound confusing? That’s because the Tanakh has a different order to the arrangement of the books that are in the Bible than the Protestant and Catholic editions, and the Catholic edition has some materials that are not in the Protestant edition of the Hebrew Bible, or more commonly known as the “Old Testament.”

A SHORT HISTORY LESSON

The story of Esther is first and foremost a story of redemption of the Jewish people over an anti-Semitic Prime Minister named Haman during the Persian rule of King Ahashuerus. Haman’s plan is quite simply to exterminate all of the Jews in the kingdom. It is foiled by Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai. The manner in which Esther, a young Jewish woman, becomes Queen is a subplot that doesn’t sit well with modern sensibilities for many people.

At any rate, for some unknown reason, Haman decides he doesn’t like Jews and wants to rid Persia of them. He tricks the King into signing a decree allowing him to exterminate all the Jews in the kingdom. Esther learns of the plot and, at great risk to her life, approaches the King to plead for the lives of her people. While the King can’t rescind his decree, he can authorize the Jews to arm and defend themselves. What follows is a battle with the Jews of Shushan—the capital of Persia—being victorious and the death of Haman and his sons on the gallows.
Following the victory, Queen Esther declares that every year on the 13th of Adar there will be a festival to commemorate the day when good prevailed over evil. And so the festival of Purim, which means ‘lots’ was instituted and continues to this day in a variety of forms.

THE CELEBRATIONS

With Esther and Mordecai as heroes, Haman as the villain and Ahashuerus as an unlikely benevolent ruler, Purim has become a cross between Mardi Gras and Halloween. Purim is celebrated by the reading of Megillah Esther, or Scroll of Esther as noted above. Generally this is done in the synagogue, but can actually take place anywhere. The reading of the megillah is usually a noisy, raucous affair. If there are children present they will be given noisemakers called ‘groggers’ and instructed to use them every time the name ‘Haman’ is pronounced. The idea is to make enough noise to obliterate his name from history.

The reading of the megillah is often followed by a carnival, a festive meal or a lively party. The type of event depends entirely upon the age of the participants. Frequently the reading of the megillah is a two-part event—the first part is the actual reading of the story and the service for the festivals and the second part is the acting out of the story. It is the second part that brings forth the creativity for many schools, congregations and organizations. A few selections I have seen this year include Hamilton, Dr. Seuss, and Star Wars themed Megillah readings. Around the country there will be so many fun, engaging celebrations in which to participate.

WHAT ABOUT THE DRINKING?

It is true that in the Talmud Rav said the following: “It is one’s duty levasumei, to make oneself fragrant [with wine] on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between ‘arur Haman‘ (cursed be Haman) and ‘barukh Mordekhai’ (blessed be Mordecai)” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7b). It is also true that we know a lot more about the effects of alcohol on our bodies and the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol. As with everything else in life, Judaism teaches us to be responsible. This isn’t an excuse to drink oneself into a stupor and endanger yourself or anyone else; be smart and sensible. Enjoy yourself and the holiday, don’t be foolish.

HAMENTASCHEN & MISHLOACH MANOT

During Purim it is customary to eat hamentaschen and to give gifts of friends and family members. Hamentaschen are pastries formed in triangles and filled with a variety of sweet or fragrant concoctions. Traditionally they are filled with prune and poppy seed mixtures, but increasingly people are becoming much more creative. There are literally dozens of variations on line—just type in “hamentaschen” on any search engine and you will find a plethora of websites from which to choose. Or, ask any friend or family member who participates in a Jewish organization of any kind. They will have their favorite for you to try!

Mishloach manot are gift baskets that people make up for one another filled with, among other items, hamentaschen. In many communities these have risen to an art form and it has become fashionable for one person to outdo the next. My opinion is less is more—a few home baked or thoughtfully chosen items for each person are much more meaningful than a huge, expensive basket of goodies that might go to waste. If you have children, involve them in the process. Other traditions are to take baskets to homebound members of your community—again take your children when you deliver them, or send cards to members of the military.

SUMMING UP  


Ultimately, Purim is about Jewish survival against all odds. It is a story we can relate to many times; it is retold during Chanukah, Passover and countless other times in the course of our history as a people. The beauty of Purim is that we are reminded that God speaks in and through unlikely places and people. The name of God is never mentioned in the book of Esther, but God’s presence is clearly there. We don’t always have to see or hear the name of God to know that God is at work in a people or place. It reminds me of Jacob when he became Israel: “God was in this place and I did not know it,” Genesis 28:16.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

IT REALLY IS ALL ABOUT THE CHEESECAKE

IT REALLY IS ALL ABOUT THE CHEESECAKE


      Have you ever been to a Jewish event that doesn't include cheesecake? I mean really, think about this carefully before you answer. Yeah, even if it’s a Kosher meal and you have to wait the requisite six hours between eating meat and dairy (that’s another discussion) chances are at some point, the cheesecake makes an appearance. This is pretty amazing especially considering so many Jews are lactose intolerant…just ask my family.
       However, I digress. That isn't the point of this discussion. The main focus is Shavuot. Yes, Sha-vu-ot. It’s a holiday that signals the end of the period that began with Passover and concludes with Shavuot and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Yes, those Ten Commandments. The ones he came down the mountains with after forty days and saw his people dancing with a golden calf. The same ones he dashed against the ground and had to return to the mountain top and humbly ask God for a do-over. Oops.
       So, you might be wondering what Shavuot and cheesecake have in common with one another. Good question. There are several reasons for dairy desserts: one is that as the Israelite's wandered in the desert they were reminded that they were traveling to the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8-17). Another is that since they were on the move, they would not have had the ability to obtain and slaughter meat according to ritual (laws of kashrut) principles. And finally, there are scholars who have traced Jewish customs and rituals and claim that spring harvest festivals characteristically featured dairy dishes, perhaps because cheese was produced during that season (myjewishlearning.com).
       As for me, I think it’s because it’s really delicious. However, if you don’t like cheesecake, try ice cream or eclairs or any other dairy based dessert; and, if you are lactose intolerant, go for something you just enjoy that gets you in the spirit of indulging and look for any excuse to eat that—and chocolate. In my opinion everything is better with chocolate.

STANDING AT SINAI
       Seriously though, Shavuot is a lot more than just eating dairy desserts. It is really about commemorating the receiving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Jewish tradition tells us that when the Israelite's stood at the base of Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments (literally Ten Words) from God by way of Moses, it was as if the entire Jewish world—past, present and future was standing there with them.
       This is why when these words are read in the synagogue the entire congregation stands for the recitation. It is the only time we stand for the reading of Torah; all other times we stand when the Torah is removed from the ark and when it is returned to the ark. We stand out of respect when the ark doors are opened and closed, but we do not stand when any other Torah portion is read. 

  We stand for the Ten Commandments because we are recreating the scene on Sinai as if we are receiving them for the very first time. If you have never experienced a Shavuot service, I encourage you to attend one; there is something special about unrolling the Torah and standing to hear those verses with which we are so familiar.
ADDING NEW TRADITIONS
       One of the principals of Reform Judaism in the mid-1800’s in Germany was the replacement of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony in favor of a Confirmation service around the same time as a traditional Bar Mitzvah would take place. In the United States, this tradition was further expanded to include girls and then eventually moved to 10th grade instead of 8th grade.
       Both the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements joined the Reform movement in these changes, although the Conservative movement continued to encourage young men to become Bar Mitzvah according to the age-old tradition. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan was actually in the forefront of the inclusion of girls becoming Bat Mitzvah when his daughter was the first girl in the United States to become a Bat Mitzvah in 1922.
Unfortunately for so many girls, it was many decades before it became standard protocol. It should be noted that Judith Kaplan read, not from the Torah, but from her Chumash, which is the Torah in printed form rather than a scroll.  
       During the middle of the 20th century the Reform movement began a shift back to embracing B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies for young men and for the first time opened the opportunities for young women as well. The Reconstructionist movement followed and eventually the Conservative movement began encouraging all students to become B’nai Mitzvah—sons and daughters of the Commandment.
       The Confirmation ceremonies took place on Erev Shavuot—an evening of high drama with the standing for the reading of the Ten Commandments, each Torah dressed in a white mantle (cover), the confirmation students in their robes and the ancient memories fresh as if it were yesterday that we heard the recitation of the words of God for the first time.
       Today, many of the Confirmation services are held on the Shabbat closest to Shavuot and some congregations choose dates that do not conflict with exam schedules and graduation ceremonies of local high schools and universities; but whenever the service takes place, it evokes the same sense of wonder and awe, and of identity and connection for each new generation.

 


TIKKUN LEIL SHAVUOT    

In addition to the reading of the Ten Commandments, study of the Book of Ruth has a prominent place within the context of Shavuot. If you remember the story of Ruth (very briefly), she was a woman who was widowed and instead of leaving to return to her people (the Moabites), chose to stay with her mother-in-law (Naomi) and return to her family in Israel.
 After Naomi’s repeated attempts to encourage Ruth to remain in Moab instead of returning to Canaan (Israel) with her, Ruth replies in one of the more well-known biblical verses: “Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people” (Ruth 1:16). By stating these words she is portrayed as having proclaimed her loyalty to Naomi and her desire to join Naomi’s people—the Jewish people.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes, “no one has better defined the combination of peoplehood and religion that characterizes Judaism: ‘Your people shall be my people” (‘I wish to join the Jewish nation’), ‘Your God shall be my god’ (‘I wish to accept the Jewish religion’). (”Biblical Literacy,” pg. 359)
       This is the reason many women who convert to Judaism take Ruth as their Hebrew name. For them, Ruth epitomizes the ultimate commitment in choosing Judaism.
       So, you may still be wondering about the connection. It’s a somewhat tenuous thread—Ruth is considered by many to be the first convert to Judaism. In the same sense, all those physically present at Sinai when Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, and those of us who symbolically receive the Ten Commandments each year, choose Judaism again and again.
In honor of our receiving of the Torah and accepting the responsibility of being people of the commandments, we honor Ruth by reading her story each year along with the Ten Commandments. As we honor the generations who came before us, the tradition is that we study late into the night, pouring over texts that enable us to continue to grow as God’s people.

A CALL TO SOCIAL ACTION  
One of three harvest festivals (the other two being Sukkot and Passover), Shavuot is an opportunity to once again reconnect with our agricultural roots. Many of us have forgotten that the original meaning of Shavuot was the demarcation between the grain harvest and fruit harvest.
In biblical times, Shavuot ended the period that began with Passover and counted the first offering of barley grain to the Temple. Today, since we are able to enjoy most foods throughout the year, we have lost touch with the cycle of the growing seasons.
This becomes a great opportunity to go beyond the commemoration of the receiving of the Torah, late night study sessions, and eating cheesecake and blintzes by adding a social justice component to our observance. We can use this occasion to delve into other scriptures such as the commandment in Genesis 2:15 “to till it and to tend” our world, using and guarding our resources for future generations. The Torah is filled with lessons about caring for the earth, putting in checks and balances and living in harmony with God and the universe.
Given the times in which we live, the prevalence for natural disasters that abound, concerns about water resources and extreme temperatures throughout the year, Shavuot seems like the perfect time to reconnect with the world around us.
There are a myriad of projects in which you and your family and extended circle of friends can participate. This type of activity is perfect for an interfaith family—everyone can join in and you will know that you are offering an opportunity to embrace Judaism on a whole new level in a way that includes everyone. 

WHAT ABOUT OUR CHILDREN?
       Like all Jewish holidays, involving children is simply about adaptation. Everything discussed here can be modified to include children of all ages. For example, instead of simply eating cheesecake, think about making ice cream—a great family friendly activity. And, since spring in many locations means fresh strawberries, include an environmental connection by picking some strawberries for your ice cream.

 
Let your children help you decorate the table with fresh flowers you purchase from a local farmer’s market or wildflowers you pick (please make sure it is a location you are permitted to cut first!). Or, buy some cotton fabric and let your children decorate a table cloth for your festive dinner.
       PJ Library has several good books appropriate for Shavuot. If you have children and have not signed up for PJ Library books, please do so. This is an absolutely free resource and is available for children 6 months-8 years of age. The books are wonderful and a great way for you and your children to grow in your celebration of Judaism in your home.
       Anything you think about doing as a social action project can be done with children of all ages. In fact, most kids will come up with more creative ideas if they are encouraged to be part of the planning process. You might be amazed at what they suggest and are willing to do, especially if they think it’s their idea.
       So, there you have it—a beginner’s guide to Shavuot. Study, worship, cheesecake, social action—everything you need for a meaningful experience. Let me know what you did and how it turned out. This just might turn out to be your favorite holiday!
Chag Sameach,
Margaret

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

LET’S TALK ABOUT CONVERSION Part III

WHEN CONVERSION DOESN’T FEEL RIGHT

Years ago there was a great deal of pressure on interfaith couples who were dating that one or the other of them had to be willing to convert. Actually, that was after both sets of parents finally gave up trying to convince them that they really had no future. The idea that a healthy marriage could be maintained with two people of two different religions is a fairly new phenomenon. Even when my husband and I got married there was a lot of head-shaking and eye rolling. I’m quite sure there were some wagers on how long we would last.
In some communities there are still expectations that one or the other has to convert, or at least agree to raise any future children in a specific faith. While an interfaith family is not always the easiest path to take, there are no guarantees that a marriage between two people of the same religion will be enduring.
Those who come into a relationship with similar core values and a willingness to work through their problems have a much better chance of staying together. Religion is just one of many factors—for me it is a very important factor, but still only one factor.
Conversion must come from the heart and soul; it is rarely meaningful or lasting if it is done to appease parents, grandparents, an organizational hierarchy or even a loving partner. What I advocate is that couples make a decision about what kind of home they plan on having and how they will raise any children they may have. If they plan on raising their children as Jews, then as long as they are in agreement the spouse who is not Jewish doesn't necessarily need to convert.

I have worked with people who were reluctant to convert for the many of following reasons. They
  • thought it would be disrespectful to their parents
  • didn’t like the idea of the mikvah (or baptism) from a privacy perspective
  • had never been circumcised and couldn't imagine doing it as an adult
  • were circumcised but thought they would have to do it again
  • felt like they were giving up their identity

These are all valid concerns and items that can be addressed with your rabbi during your year of study. There is no shame is spending the time in thoughtful study and reflection, and at the end of that period, deciding this is not the right time for you to make the commitment.
The whole purpose of taking an entire year of your life to worship, pray, study, and celebrate with a faith community is to provide clarity as to whether or not this is where your future lies. If, at the end of the year, it still doesn't feel right, you are a wiser person for having devoted the time and energy.
You can have the exact same experience in any faith community whether it is a Christian Church, Baha’i Center, Mosque, or any religious community you devote yourself to as a seeker. At the end of your time of study and worship with your partner, you may decide this is not your path; however, it will not have been wasted or lost time. The two of you will have had time to clarify your values and grown in your understandings of what each of you does believe and what kind of home you will create.

WHAT TO EXPECT FROM CONVERSION
If you choose to follow through and convert (this is about converting to Judaism) there are a few practices you might want to learn about in advance. Any rabbi you study with will certainly guide you through this process, but it doesn't hurt to know in advance. So, if you haven’t read LET’S TALK ABOUT CONVERSION, PART I, please go back and read that blog. In it I answer the questions about the mikveh, circumcision, a bet din, and offer a number of resources from which you can choose.
          The thing about conversion is that you will make some people happy and disappoint other people—it’s kind of like everything else in life—you can’t make everyone happy all the time. The people you have to consider are you and your future spouse, your future children, and the reality of the feelings of your immediate family—parents and grandparents. But, even then, while being respectful and honoring them, the decision rests with you and your future spouse.
          A conversion to any faith is a public statement and that is an expectation regardless of the tradition or movement. This isn't something you can keep secret and whisper in the early hours of the morning or the darkening of the sky. By converting you are publicly stating your intention to set your future course with a specific people who believe in certain principles, values and life styles.

I’M SURE, CONVERSION ISN'T RIGHT FOR ME
          Good for you. A difficult decision has been made through thoughtful consideration. Hopefully, this is something you and your partner have worked through with your clergy member and everyone is on the same page. This doesn't necessarily mean it will never be something you will consider again, it also doesn't mean you will ever consider it again. For now, however, it is off the table and you will move toward your marriage as an interfaith couple and create an interfaith family.

DOES THIS HAVE IMPLICATIONS FOR THE WEDDING?
          Well, perhaps yes, and perhaps no. Most clergy will expect you to make a decision about what kind of home you will be creating once you are married. For example, if you are young and plan on having children, they will want to know what faith tradition you plan on raising your future children.
Being undecided, telling them you will let the kids decide when they are older, or saying you haven’t talked about that yet, are not the answers they are usually seeking. If a clergy member is going to officiate at your wedding, s/he will want to know that you have given careful consideration to these questions and plan to raise your future family in the faith that s/he represents.
However, having said that, many clergy are comfortable with couples who are still undecided up to the time of the wedding. This is a conversation for you to have with your clergy person who is officiating at your wedding.

WILL I STILL BE WELCOME IN THE COMMUNITY?
          I can’t speak for every faith community on this one, but I can speak for the progressive Jewish community—Yes! The decision on whether or not to convert is a personal choice and nobody will think less of you because you have decided that conversion is not the right choice for you. As the spouse of a member, you will automatically be considered a part of the congregation and welcome to participate in all aspects of congregational life.
          However, in some faith communities, and in some Jewish communities, there are specific roles and rites in which people who are not adherents to the tenets of the faith cannot engage or participate. One example in Christianity is the sacrament of Holy Communion; this is reserved for those who believe in Jesus as Christ. Similarly, in Judaism some congregations reserve reading from the Torah or reciting blessings before and after reading Torah for those who are Jews, either by birth or conversion.

WHAT IF I CHANGE MY MIND?
          The door is always open. You may always decide at a later time that you are ready for conversion or that you wish to explore the idea again. It is not a “one time” decision. Many people have chosen to convert years after they were married, some long after their children were grown. People grow and change, circumstance change, our needs change and our ideas about what we once thought we wanted change.
          You and your spouse have a common set of values that set you on a trajectory toward marriage and establishing a home together. If that common set of values continues to grow together, it is reasonable that at some point one or the other of you may ultimately decide to join the other in his or her faith community. And if you don’t, that’s fine too. It doesn't mean your value system is askew. It just means you each find meaning in your own traditions and that works for your family.

HOW DO I RESPOND TO PEOPLE WHEN THEY ASK ME WHY I AM NOT CONVERTING?

I am always amazed at the things people think they have a right to ask. I suppose it’s just too rude to say “it’s none of your business” but that’s really the answer they deserve, unless it’s a heartfelt request from a parent.
Your answer should depend upon the person asking and your relationship with that person. For example, if this is someone you really don’t know, you can simply say that it is a personal decision and you and your future spouse are giving careful thought to the question. If the question comes from a family member you can thank them for their concern and reiterate that you are giving it careful thought, and maybe add how much you enjoy celebrating with them.
There are two caveats of which you must be aware: 
1. If you are Jewish and marrying someone from an evangelical Christian family, and,
2. If you a non-Jewish woman who is marrying a Jewish man.
In the first instance please understand that your new family may very well do its utmost to convince you to convert to their religion. They don’t mean to offend you, they mean the opposite—they love you and want to ensure your salvation. Period. This is what they know and understand. Please do not take offense but do be firm with your spouse and with his/her family that conversion is not an option (unless it is).
As for the second instance, since Judaism is passed down through the woman, children born of non-Jewish women have historically not been considered Jewish unless they converted. However, in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements there is this practice called “patrilineal descent” that recognizes children born of either a Jewish man or woman as Jewish as long as they are raised as Jews.
In Conservative Judaism it is a bit more complex. If a baby is taken to the mikveh following birth (after a Brit Milah for a boy and a naming ceremony for a girl) and immersed, then that child is Jewish. If, however, a boy does not have a Brit Milah but has a circumcision in a hospital and a naming ceremony, that is not considered acceptable. That child would then have to go through a hatafat dam (please refer to LET’S TALK ABOUT CONVERSION PART I for an explanation of this term) prior to the immersion.
Beyond these two groups of people you don’t need to go into details about why you are, or are not, converting. It is a personal decision. Everyone you meet will have a story for you. Everyone will want you to talk to their aunt, cousin, friend, sister or spouse. Thank them for their interest and tell them you will let them know if the time comes that you want to meet any of these people. When they circle back again, tell them firmly that you appreciate their concern but they are making you uncomfortable.

WHAT’S NEXT?
Now it’s time to settle into your lives and decide how you want to live this interfaith life that you have chosen. Your life together can be anything you want it to be. There are so many resources available to assist you and your family. Interfaith Family based in Boston is on that has a wealth of online resources that you can download. Their focus isn't on conversion; it’s on engaging families to create Jewish memories and supporting you in your process. The Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jewish movements all have departments devoted to interfaith families and resources to assist you. The Jewish Outreach Institute has some valuable information in its Jewish Lights publications series that might be helpful.
The Catholic Church has a website, www.foryourmarriage.org which outlines the specifics regarding interfaith marriages within the Catholic Church. They include other Christian denominations and non-Christian traditions such as Judaism and Islam. It is comprehensive and very accessible. Like Judaism, Catholicism expects you to raise any future children in the faith.
Many Protestant denominations like the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Church and the Episcopal Church have either departments within their national offices or online resources available. In addition, most of them have local offices that offer resources that are also readily available.
Other religions have interfaith resources including Islam-Christian, Baha’i Interfaith, Hindu Interfaith, Greek Orthodox and Buddhist Interfaith. Because so many couples are marrying outside the parameters of their faith traditions, religious organizations have come to understand that they will either lose these couples completely or they must find a way to embrace them and make them feel welcome.
The caveat with most of the denominationally based interfaith resources and organizations above is that, while they do not require the spouse convert, they do expect any children will be raised in their faith. Please make sure you have this conversation before you get married—in which tradition will you raise your children? 

SUMMING UP
          We covered a lot of information in this post. There is no right answer for everyone; each couple has to make decisions that are right for them. Those decisions might change over time and as your circumstances change. Nothing in life is static—your career is not static, you will likely move from one home to another, probably from one state to another. You will each grow and change throughout your life together. Being open and receptive to those changes and being mindful of how these changes impact your faith and family traditions will help you move forward.
          The conversation about conversion is just one conversation. It is important, but it is still just one conversation. The conversation about shared core values is one that is ongoing. That is where the major portion of the work takes place. With the two of you deciding your future together. May the work you undertake together be one of blessing and joy; Mazel Tov!

NEXT TIME:
REFLECTING ON YOUR INTERFAITH MARRIAGE
Visit us at www.interfaithlifecoaching.com and let us know what topics would like to have addressed on the blog. Leave your comments and begin a discussion about a topic of interest to you.

Friday, April 3, 2015

BE HAPPY, IT’S TIME TO CELEBRATE!

The matzah ball soup is done, the table is set, the seder plate is ready, the desserts are done, most of the food is cooked, and I have time to take a short break. One son has already arrived home; the other is on a plane heading this direction: life is good!

Whether you are celebrating Passover or Easter this weekend, hiding the afikomen or the Easter eggs, may your home be filled with the blessings of family, friends and shared traditions. Some of you may move from Passover this evening to an Easter egg hunt tomorrow, back to another Passover Seder Saturday night, then perhaps to church services with your extended family and Easter dinner Sunday.

Sometimes it is difficult to bounce between the two, and sometimes one faith tradition takes precedence over the other. In an interfaith family, you simply must learn to be flexible and take what comes. There are no hard and fast rules, and often there are no correct or wrong answers.

People will tell you that you must do “a” or “b” but in my experience every family is different, and every situation is unique. One year may work well to celebrate both holidays; another may be fine to only choose one. This year with Passover and Easter on the same weekend, if both of your families live in the same area, it will likely be difficult to only celebrate either Easter or Passover.
Whatever you decide, please do not berate yourself for your choice. Make a decision and live with that for this year; next year can take of itself. Much like Christmas/Chanukah, you may decide to celebrate one holiday in your home and go to grandparents or other relatives for the other holiday.

Judaism has a concept that fits perfectly here: keva and kavannah. Keva is about form and ritual and making certain that you are following prescribed order in worship and practice. Kavannah is about intentionality, that which is in your heart and which you bring to your practice. It is the kavannah that is important in deciding how to observe and celebrate in interfaith families. What is your intention, what is in your heart as you make your decisions about your family’s practice and observance of each holiday? So, if your children receive Easter baskets from their Christian grandparents or have an Easter egg hunt with their cousins, it’s OK. Relax and know what’s in your heart and your kavannah.
Your children will understand if you explain that this is their grandparents’ holiday and you are there to celebrate with them. If you are observing Passover and you end up eating foods that are not appropriate for Passover, resume your Passover fast when you get back home. Remember, you are doing your best—that is all any of us ever can expect from ourselves, we are not perfect.

Many years ago, our family went to Colonial Williamsburg, VA during spring break. We arrived on the 4th day of Passover. If you have ever been to Colonial Williamsburg, you know that one of the attractions is the food, specifically the amazing baked goods. The first day was all about “no, I’m sorry, it’s Passover, you can’t have that” and then I turned to my husband and told him I couldn't do this anymore, we were ending Passover early (he didn’t care, he’s not Jewish—he was amused I was even trying on vacation). I managed to last another day and then I, too, succumbed to the delicacies around me. We had an amazing vacation, but had I not made that decision, their memories would have been all about the foods they couldn't eat instead of the wonders of running around an early American village.

Passover shouldn't be about how hard it is to prepare everything or how stressful it is to get it "right". It should be about finding a way to be aware of the blessing of freedom we have as Jews in this country and in the world today, honoring our ancestors for their sacrifices, and expressing an awareness of the many people who are not so fortunate, whether they are Jewish or not. This season, may you find a few moments to be mindful of your blessings and find a way to make a meaningful contribution to your faith community with your presence and kavannah.

May you be blessed in your comings and goings this weekend and may you make memories with both sides of your family.

Chag Sameach Pesach (Happy Passover) and Happy Easter,

Margaret

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

AN INTERFAITH PASSOVER SEDER: A TEACHABLE MOMENT OR AN OXYMORON


AN INTERFAITH PASSOVER SEDER:
A TEACHABLE MOMENT OR AN OXYMORON

I am going to make a generalization and speculate that few people reading this article are unfamiliar with Passover, or have not at least heard of the holiday. In a country that many consider Christian, many of our holidays take on the tenor of public, secular holidays. Passover, however, is one that manages to continue to convey deep religious significance for both Jews and Christians. In case you are not familiar with Passover, keep reading and you will gain a beginner’s knowledge of this “Festival of Freedom”.
THE ‘MUST HAVE’ ELEMENTS OF A SEDER
 If you peruse any haggadah (book about the seder) you will notice that there are many elements to a seder. To begin with, the word seder simply means order or the manner in which the meal and service will proceed. It is a highly designed and orchestrated order, similar to a pageant. Secondly, the haggadah is the book which contains the seder and all the details of the story, or maggid.
When you break the seder down to the elements that are actually 

required or commanded in Torah, there are only three: maggid

telling of the story; maror—eating of bitter herbs like horseradish; 
and matzo—eating of unleavened bread. 

Everything else has been added on as an embellishment to enhance the experience of remembrance in an effort to relive the experience of our ancestors.


WHAT MAKES A SEDER “INTERFAITH”?
Let me start by saying that I really love Passover. It is my favorite Jewish holiday, I mean, what’s not to love? You get to eat those yummy (translate tasteless) unleavened crackers that leave crumbs all over your exceptionally clean house that you and your lovely family just spend days eradicating of every crumb of leavened, sugary, tasty goodness. All that work to allow the invasion of new crumbs, and not just any crumbs—these are crumbs that you will vacuuming and sweeping up from now until the 4th of July—ironic since that is the American freedom festival—because they are so evasive to cleaning and love to hang around.
Truthfully, what I love is not the cleaning, unpacking dishes, endless recipe hunt, shopping, but the feeling of connection and having family and friends join us for an evening, or two, of fun, song, stories and sometimes, irreverence (the latter is attributed to contributions of my sons). Over the years we have created family wherever we lived and invited numerous guests of all ages to join us at our table. We invited Jews and non-Jews, neighbors, colleagues from work, friends of our sons, people we met whom we found interesting and the stranger in our midst. The table was always full, usually overflowing, the conversations animated, the food excellent and varied, and there was always a good-natured argument about how to proceed with the order (seder) of the meal.
Throughout my life I have participated in so many Passover seders; from those of my childhood—four hours of torture conducted in Hebrew—to the early feeble attempts my husband and I made with our young children thinking something was better than nothing. We learned as we taught others, we explored ideas, we found new haggadot (books for the seder) and tried them out on our unsuspecting family and friends, experimented with recipes—perfected some and discarded others—and in the process elevated the place of Passover in our home and our lives.
Somewhere in all of this I was asked to lead my first Interfaith Passover Seder. I did so as my husband and I did ours at home; it never occurred to me that communion would be a part of Passover. I guess I was na├»ve because at the end, there it was, and there I was, speechless. I had been to Christian Seders so I knew what to expect, but they were Christian, so I wasn't surprised, I expected that to occur. I also understood they would draw parallels between aspects of Passover and the crucifixion of Jesus. While I personally find this uncomfortable, it was after all, a Christian Seder, and I was a guest so I didn’t feel that I had a right to voice my opposition or make any corrections.
An Interfaith Passover Seder is different; in my experience, it is very challenging to have a truly “Interfaith” Passover celebration. This is the crux of the separation of the two faiths: Judaism continues to observe Passover as a freedom festival—the passage from the bondage and slavery in Egypt to freedom and self-determination in the Promised Land of what is now modern-day Israel. Christianity observes Passover as the Last Supper—the betrayal of Jesus by one of his disciples and the catalyst of the events leading to his crucifixion and ultimately the birth of a new religion.
Since the early days, I have led many Interfaith Passover Seders, some have been very engaging, some have been illogical and uncomfortable; all have involved careful planning and making deliberate decisions about what to do and what not to do or say. There are those Christian congregations who employ the symbolism of the Passover Seder as a means to educate their congregations about their theological understanding of the divinity of Jesus. As I have already stated, they do so by drawing parallels between the symbols of the elements on the seder plate—the maror (bitter herbs), matzo (unleavened bread), zeroa (roasted shank bone)—and the crucifixion of Jesus. I consider these to be Christian Seders. From a Jewish perspective, this undermines the original purpose and intention of Passover and results in co-opting one tradition to meet the desire of another.
You may be wondering what is problematic about this idea and why it has been brought it up in this discussion. That’s a good question and one that deserves thoughtful consideration. This is, after all, a forum for interfaith conversations—finding a place where two or more faith traditions meet in an effort to find those connections that will overcome theological barriers and seek the oneness between the spaces of their differences.
However, when that space between the differences obliterates the meaning and purpose of the original rite, then perhaps there is no place for it at the table. I recently had a discussion with a new friend about this topic. As I explained that in the past when I led interfaith seders I would only agree to do so if they agreed not to have communion while I was present. She found this odd and in a sense disturbing, since to her communion was the logical conclusion of a Passover Seder. I was, in turn, puzzled by her assertion that this was the logical conclusion to a seder. As we discussed our differences, I began to realize that I had always viewed the experience only through a Jewish lens, not through an interfaith lens.
With that realization, I revisited the idea of an interfaith seder and walked through a traditional seder from a different perspective—that of a learner, not a participant experiencing a seder as a member of a faith tradition. I came to the conclusion that while, many experiences are universal, this one is particular—it grew out of the practices of a particular community of a particular faith tradition in a specific time in history. Of course it has changed over time; the seder has been added to and revised by the advent of modernity, but the basic format has remained unchanged for generations. To institute a Christian element, even for the sake of interfaith dialogue, feels disingenuous to me.
There are many similarities between Christian communion and the sanctification of bread and wine during Jewish festivals. In Jewish festivals, including Shabbat, we have prayers to sanctify not only the day but also the wine and bread (or matzo during Passover). Christians have prayers to sanctify the wine and wafers (called the host) which make them holy for communion; without being consecrated in this manner they are simply wine and unleavened crackers. What I learned from my friend (who happens to be Catholic and a Eucharistic minister) is that while anyone may participate in the ritual, only those who are Catholic may partake of the consecrated wine and wafers. This provides a way for non-Catholics, or those who are no longer active in the Church, to receive a blessing and not have to sit awkwardly in the pew while everyone else moves forward to the altar.
I am grateful to my friend for opening my eyes to a new way of thinking, new ideas and a new challenge. For me, Passover will always be the celebration and commemoration of the freedom of the children of Israel from Pharaoh and the Egyptian’s. I believe to include communion diminishes the experience rather than enhancing it and will continue to request it not be included in future interfaith seders that I lead. However, I will do so with a different understanding and awareness and will be able to explain my rationale in a manner that is neither offensive nor elitist. And while I choose not to include communion in the seder, this new knowledge and understanding provides a wonderful learning opportunity and discussion for an interfaith seder.

CREATING YOUR OWN SEDER
As you gather with your interfaith family, what new traditions will you try to incorporate this year? Will you be able to utilize some of what I have written to open a discussion on how you can have a meaningful seder with everyone present? Perhaps you will choose to simply serve a meal made up of foods appropriate for Passover and talk about why the menu is different today.

Fortunately for you the reader, there are a myriad of resources to 

help you decide how to proceed. All you have to do is go to your 

favorite search engine and type in Passover and off you go! There 

you will discover a wealth of recipes to try, an abundance of tried 

and true haggadot—even the Maxwell House Haggadah is still 

available, children’s books, music, songs, puppets (yes, really, 

plague puppets are all the rage), videos (try the Rugrats Passover 

video for very young children) and games.



My family’s favorite at the moment is the Bob Marley 

Haggadah (yes, really!) which we downloaded on our I-pads. 


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MAKING CHOICES
This year may present particular challenges for some families since Passover and Easter fall together on the same weekend. Holy Thursday is April 2 with Good Friday the following day. This also happens to be the first night of Passover and the first seder; Saturday will be second night seder. Sunday is Easter for Christians and begins the second full day of Passover for Jews; the first two days of Passover are a chag, holy days when services are held in synagogues and traditional Jews refrain from work.
For those of you in blended families who refrain from eating foods containing leavening (yeast, baking soda, baking powder to name a few ingredients) you may find Easter dinner to be interesting at Grandma’s house. Moderation is always the key under these circumstances. Just eat what you can, monitor your children’s intake to the extent possible, and know that God has a sense of humor and there is always next year. The hardest challenge is generally the candies and sweets because they contain sugars that are not Passover approved—try explaining that to a four-year-old who is devouring an Easter basket full of candy with her cousins! Life is full of compromises and this is a prime example of the time to compromise instead of maintaining a rigid stance. I admit that we eventually stopped the Easter visits partly because of the tug-of-war between Easter treats and Passover restrictions. It became easier to visit on another weekend when there were no restrictions on what my kids could eat and no emphasis on their being ‘different’ from their cousins.
In the end, I encourage you to do what we always do: celebrate with abandon, embrace your faith, family and tradition and seek new pathways to connect another generation to their Jewish roots. As always, feel free to contact me for information on anything contained within this column. If you would like specific assistance with choosing a haggadah or finding appropriate recipes for your Passover seder, please contact me through www.interfaithlifecoaching.com

Chag Pesach Sameach—Happy Passover,
Margaret