It was a marathon holiday weekend in our house: Passover and Easter, rolled into one salty, sugary, almost meltdown-free weekend. Yes, I’m still full. Yes, I still have a large jar of gefilte fish on my counter that I might devour for lunch.
This overlapping combination shifts my hazy cultural identity sharply into focus. Growing up, we were incredibly close with my mom’s Irish Catholic family. Their holidays dominated and formed some of my happiest childhood memories. Even my Jewish grandmother came to Easter dinner. My grandparents prepared elaborate pastel Easter baskets, wrapped in cellophane. My Jewish dad hid chocolate eggs around the house. Both of my parents were raised religiously (Hebrew school, Sunday school, bar mitzvah, confirmation, et cetera). My brother and I were not.
And we didn’t really do Jewish holidays, aside from Hanukkah. My paternal grandmother didn’t host holidays at her house; there was no frame of reference there at all. My first seder happened in college, when my thesis advisor (I wrote about Woody Allen!) invited me to his house in Amherst for Passover. I followed along, humming the words and trying not to make a complete fool of myself, feeling like a total interloper. I might as well have worn a big ole pair of bunny ears and buck teeth.
Now I have kids of my own, and by some twist of fate, most people in my neighborhood (and many of my friends who also have kids) celebrate both holidays. In our social orbit, interfaith families are the norm. Each family falls somewhere along the religious spectrum, from an Episcopalian mom who raises her children as Jews to a Jewish dad who celebrates Christmas. No biggie.
My kids went to a laid-back seder on Friday night at a friends’ house. This particular friend was raised as a Jew; his non-Jewish mom converted before he was born. Another friend is Jewish; her husband isn’t. Then there was my hybrid brood. We had lamb meatballs and yogurt sauce, hard-boiled eggs and matzah. Delicious. Then we watched an Eric Carle cartoon.
The next afternoon, we had Jewish cousins on my dad’s side over for lunch. We had Indian food. They brought dessert. Vindaloo and charoset might make for an untraditional meal, but everyone liked it.
Saturday night was a bit more structured, complete with a Haggadah for kids and the throwing of plastic frogs to make the plagues really come to life. Our friends hosted three families, complete with grandparents, one of whom was visiting from out of town and had never been to a seder before. Andy and his two friends, all interfaith, were there, complete with siblings, a European au pair and a very lively (and presumably religiously neutral) dog. Kids swilled grape juice; they swatted one another with scallion stems; they dunked their matzah into horseradish and winced in pain; they put too much salt water on their parsley; they took turns practicing their reading skills to a room of patient and more or less charmed adults. They asked good questions (“What are boils?” “Is this lice like the kind people get at school?”), and they had fun.
At the end of dinner, all the kids roamed the house looking for the afikoman. I snapped a photo of Andy and two of his besties, right, basking in the glow of sweet victory. Each of them comes from a layered cultural and religious background; each of them had a terrific night. The chocolate-covered matzah prepared by my confirmed but lapsed Catholic husband was a big hit.
The next day, it was off to my parents’ house for Easter. My two boys roamed once again, this time in the front yard, in search of big plastic Easter eggs, tucked into the bushes. Then they trashed the house looking for smaller chocolate eggs, hidden in improbable places like inside my parents’ piano. My brother’s Jewish girlfriend scoured alongside everyone. My Jewish dad hid the eggs. My kids tore into their Easter baskets the same way I used to tear into mine.
By 6 p.m. that night, I was ready to go to bed.
Leaving Passover on Saturday night, I asked our host’s 7-year-old about his favorite part of the festivities. The next day, like Andy, he’d be off to an Easter brunch at his maternal grandparents’ house.
He scrunched up his face for a minute, adjusted his kid-sized yarmulke and grinned.
“I’m happy it’s spring!” he said.
Right on, my friend.