April 30, 2011

Passover Book Review: “Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families”

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism at 9:15 pm by chavalah

Moment of truth—though writers and journalists Cokie and Steve Roberts live but just 20 minutes away from me, and have been doing a great deal of book promotion in the DC metro area, I didn’t really think much about this book until, by chance, I was waiting for a friend in the neighborhood Borders a week or so before Passover, and I saw the book on display. I decided then and there that this might be a good way to engage my parents in Passover in a way that might be applicable to our family.

But the Roberts Passover Haggadah isn’t so much about that. Part Haggadah and part memoir, it jumps from some biographical information (Steve grew up as a “cultural” Jew and Cokie was his Catholic wife who wanted to re-start the Passover tradition for the family,) to the contents of the seder ceremony (somewhat truncated and peppered with explanations of Jewish life and practice for those who need it,) and parts recipe book. There wasn’t much mention of the interfaith nature of this seder, beyond the fact that many intermarried friends have been attending for years, except for an InterfaithFamily.com-attributed mention that some folks put an artichoke on the seder plate to signify the “thorniness” in the way that interfaith families have been treated by the larger Jewish community. (Also, there’s a reminder that Moses’s wife, Zipporah, was surely no Heeb! :P)

All in all, however, I came to respect that an interfaith spin wasn’t superimposed on top of the seder, in the way that one might reach out and find parallels between the plights of African American or the LGBT communities. Dual heritage folks haven’t faced the same sort of persecution as these groups, or certainly the Jews. To add that in as an overarching theme would have cheapened the experience.

In the end, this book/Haggadah had a far more universal message. I gave it to my mom when I went to Baltimore for an early seder with my parents, and she tore through it. At the end of reading, she remarked on how “accessible” the seder was to her, because it was filled with personal ideas and connections to the tradition. Later, our “mock” seder consisted of eating matzah and philosophizing about the Exodus story.

At the end of the day, I wonder if we got Passover more right than the “by-the-book” Jews who just droned through the same memorized story they’ve been telling for 40 years. Steve and Cokie’s seder is a huge success, with so many prominent Washingtonian people in attendance that it landed them this book deal, and the secret to their success is that they’ve been catering the seder to their personal experiences. They cook lamb and Greek finger foods that hearkens back both to the Paschal lamb and their time living in Greece. They’ve included African spirituals for their Black guests, and to link the two histories of slavery and redemption. They say “next year in Bethesda,” because within this tiny enclave in Montgomery County, Md., they and their guests have found a place to call home. In short, the Passover story remains relevant to them. They’ve kept the original themes, but adapted it to their lives.

I’ve never felt worthy to lead a seder. I’ve been attending them for as long as I can remember, but I still find myself blanking most of the time on the order of the ceremony, or the names of everything on the seder plate. However, perhaps with some planning and insight, I can make something memorable. I’d like to find a way to proactively link myself and my parents to this rich tradition. And I think the answer’s not in the details. The answer is in making the story of the Jews applicable to you and your family today, as they Jewish people continue to evolve, survive and thrive.


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