I recently discovered that I have Jewish ancestors. My son Quinn, the family genealogist, called to say, “Mom, we’re Jewish!” It seems I am a direct descendant of Joshua ben Joseph ibn Vives al-Lorqui. (Google him.) This, I thought, explains everything.
I have always had an affinity for Judaism. Sitting in a synagogue at Yom Kippur, listening to the chanting, the cantors the sound of the shofar, the prayers seemed familiar and moving to me, even when I went for the first time. There was something atavistic about it. I felt a sense of belonging. One Jewish friend once told me I had a yiddishe kopf, or Jewish mind. I took it as a huge compliment. I even wrote a novel in which my heroine falls madly in love with a Jewish doctor.
So it wasn’t unusual that at a Passover Seder this past Monday night, I felt right at home. The reading of the Haggadah, the stories of the Jews being Passed Over by God when he sent the plagues to Egypt and the escaping of the Jews from slavery always resonated with me. Passover is about freedom and the longing for peace and prosperity. Passover is also about food: the matzah (unleavened bread), the wine, the maror (bitter herbs), and the charoset (sweetmeats). And that’s only the beginning: the gefilte fish, the matzah ball soup, the brisket, and the macaroons.
I have been struggling to reconcile the pull I have between my attraction to Judaism and my sense of belonging in my own church.
Some of my Jewish friends find the Haggadah readings, which can go on for hours in very observant households, really boring. Happily, ours was beautifully edited and the perfect length. A Jewish friend of mine once said his idea of the perfect Haggadah would be: “They tried to kill us. They didn’t kill us. Let’s eat.”
I was brought up a Christian by a Presbyterian mother and an Episcopalian father. I’m a WASP. There are Jews in my background, but also all those Scots and Irish and English. I love Christmas, but I don’t feel very religious about it. Easter is different. Yes, it has some of the same materialistic aspects of Christmas — as a child I couldn’t wait to get my beautiful new Easter outfits, complete with matching hats and Mary Janes, and I loved the Easter baskets with the presents and the candy — but what I always found most compelling is the resurrection. I never understood how a loving God could allow his son to be crucified, but the resurrection was something else. I would wake up Easter morning to see the sunrise and feel elated. At Easter, somehow, everything was possible.
My parents particularly liked our Easter Sunday dinners after church and the Easter egg hunts were over. We had country ham with all the trimmings, curried eggs, grits, collard greens, biscuits, lemon meringue pie and, of course, all the chocolates from the Easter baskets. Most importantly, it was the time for my father to break out the Bloody Marys and my mother to pour herself a glass of Champagne. The WASP version of my Jewish friend’s description of the holiday might well have been: “They tried to kill him. They didn’t kill him. Let’s drink.”
I have been struggling to reconcile the pull I have between my attraction to Judaism and my sense of belonging in my own church. Belief has nothing to do with it. At so many Seders I have been to, many of the guests do not believe in God. At our Seder Monday night, there was a Jewish woman who is an avowed atheist and her husband, in his seventies, who was raised Orthodox, then became a Hindu for 10 years. Now he’s a seeker. Yet he chanted the Hebrew prayers from his childhood.
I have been an atheist most of my life, though I don’t consider myself one now. That has nothing to do with my feeling for Christmas or Easter, either Christ’s birth or his death and resurrection. Though I won’t be able to be at Easter Sunday Services at the National Cathedral this year, I go to the Friday meditation services, which I like almost more. To sit there in silence and see the sun streaming through the stained glass windows fills me with a sense of mystery and awe that I don’t normally feel in my life. I experience renewal in the same way I feel a certain liberation at the Seder.
Do the participants at the Seder really believe that the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, were passed over by God, and escaped to their own land? A lot of them don’t.
Do I believe in God? I’m not sure what I believe would mean the same to others. Do I believe Jesus was the Son of God? Who am I to say? Do I believe Jesus was resurrected from the dead? I don’t know.
It really doesn’t matter whether the Jews at the Seder believe. Nor does it matter that the Christians at Easter believe. What matters is the overwhelming sense of community that all of these rituals inspire.
The word “gratitude” is overused, but certainly it works, each morning as you wake and regardless of what sorrows you may have in your life, to think of the many things you have to be grateful for. What always seems fresh to me, what always makes me realize that there is hope in this world, is the recitation of Dayenu, the chorus of which is joyously sung during the Seder. The word means: “It would have been enough.”
“Had we been brought out of Egypt and not been supported in the wilderness, it would have been enough!” Then the singing: “Day, Day, Dayenu, Day, Day Dayenu, Day Day Dayenu, Day- ye- nu!”
“Had we been supported in the wilderness and not been the given the Sabbath, it would have been enough!” It continues throughout the return to Israel, then finally: “Had we been returned to the land of our ancestors and not been summoned to perfect this world, it would have been enough! Dayenu!”
So this Easter will be for me as it was at the Passover Seder. I will close my eyes and breathe deeply and whisper to myself, “Risen indeed.” And, despite everything, “Had I had nothing but the love of my family and friends, it would have been enough! Dayenu!”
image by Alexander Shustov.