At Passover this year, my 87-year-old father will preside over a long table of children, grandchildren and in-laws gathered in a Florida condo. As part of a sprawling family tree of Italians, French-Canadians, Germans, Irish, Jews, Catholics and Episcopalians, we all take turns reading the traditional Jewish blessings and commentaries. Of the 30 or so people around the table, my father will be the only person descended from four Jewish grandparents.
An interfaith Passover is nothing new. Tradition commands that we welcome the stranger to the Seder table and share the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The epic saga of flight from slavery and struggle for religious freedom has inspired gospel Seders shared by Jews and African-American Christians since at least the 1960s. And those of us in interfaith families have always included Christian family members and friends at our Seders with relative ease. This year, intermarried Washington power couple Cokie and Steve Roberts (she’s Catholic, he’s Jewish) published a new Haggadah (the liturgy of prayers and readings used at the Seder table) describing their own interfaith Seder.
Easter, on the other hand, presents more of a theological dilemma for the estimated 1 million American families led by intermarried Jews and Christians. For interfaith families raising Jewish children, the most common strategy is to limit any Easter observance to the more secular side: the baskets and eggs and bunnies.
But for some of us, that is not enough. My family belongs to a growing network of independent communities determined to educate our children in both Judaism and Christianity. In Chicago, Boston, Denver, New York and Washington, interfaith families are coming together, not to mix Passover and Easter together, but to make sure our children understand the distinct religious meaning of both holidays, and not just the secular trimmings. We encourage our children to contemplate the possible interpretations of Easter, rather than avoiding the topic: physical or spiritual resurrection, history or literature, inspiring metaphor or inscrutable mystery?
Last year, our community in Washington D.C., the Interfaith Families Project, created an Easter service for interfaith families. Why can’t interfaith families go to churches on Easter? They can, but the Jewish partner may or may not feel truly welcome, especially if those preaching somehow missed the Pope’s recent reminder that the Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus. More than one interfaith family I know has been traumatized by an Easter sermon. But also, for many intermarried couples, it feels very different to sit together as equals in a service designed for interfaith families, as opposed to being in a house of worship where one partner plays “host” and the other is a tolerated “guest.” Our children sense when their parents feel equally welcome and comfortable, and they thrive on this sense of balance.
Can a Jewish parent go beyond forbearance, to find actual meaning in the religious themes of Easter, while remaining Jewish? At our interfaith Easter service last year, Georgetown University’s Rabbi Harold White, Spiritual Advisor to the Interfaith Families Project, explained that resurrection was a familiar concept to Jews in the time of Jesus. Traditional Jewish (and Christian and Muslim) beliefs include the idea that everyone will be resurrected in the “end-times.” But more broadly, the metaphorical themes of renewal in spring, and of a spirit that lives on somehow after death, are universal.
The aim of our interfaith Easter service, and of our interfaith community in general, is not to create a new religion, or a confusing mash-up, or to convert anyone, or to become “Jews for Jesus.” Rather, we want to provide a deeper level of religious literacy for our interfaith children, to go beyond jelly beans and chocolate matzahs, to truly wrestle with the theological consonance and dissonance inevitably represented in our families, and in our increasingly interfaith world.
After the Easter service, our community holds a pancake breakfast, a tradition in many churches. But we also serve matzah brei (eggs and matzoh, fried in a separate griddle) for those avoiding bread during Passover. We realize all of this enthusiastic celebrating across boundaries will make some folks, and most religious institutions, uncomfortable or even distressed. As an interfaith child raised with one religion, I can attest to the benefits, and the drawbacks, of the “whatever you do, just choose one religion” pathway. But as the parent of interfaith teenagers raised with two religions, I can also attest to the benefits, and the drawbacks, of this radical new route.
As a family, we gain emotional satisfaction from thriving at the center of a community rather than feeling tolerated at the periphery. And we gain intellectual satisfaction from keeping the two religious traditions in dynamic equilibrium, acknowledging that they are interconnected, that we are all interconnected.
Susan Katz Miller, a former Newsweek reporter and former Board Chair of the Interfaith Families Project, blogs at On Being Both. She is writing a book on interfaith families celebrating two religions.
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