On a few mornings during this past week, my 4 year old daughter Neve has crawled out of bed and asked, “Is today when I can’t eat bread?”
When I say, “No, that starts Friday night, when Passover begins,” her whole body visibly relaxes.
It’s more than a little comical. Neve’s (admittedly very narrow) eating life focuses primarily on things not kosher for Passover: bread, dry cereal, and hummus. This is a girl who often eats slices of bread as a snack, so the thought of going without her first food love for several days is clearly causing her a little, well, tsuris.
In the past, only Joe kept Passover – since he’s the official Jew and all, in addition to being an adult – but last year, we took a step toward easing me and the girls into this holiday tradition. The compromise? We left bread items in the house, but none of us were allowed eat any of it when we were at home during those 8 days; and when the girls ate at school (and I ate at work), or out at a restaurant, all Passover bets were off.
This year, though, we’re trying to go all in. The girls are intrigued by the idea of gathering and selling our Chametz – though Neve keeps mistaking that word for “hummus” – to a neighbor and then buying it back after Passover; I am, too, since I’ve never done this before. And in this post-layoff time of upheaval and transition, I’m making a more concerted effort to be a little adventurous, and thus keep depression and self-doubt at bay.
Earlier this year, as I usually do, I’d put together small Easter baskets for the girls, with a little stuffed bunny (Neve named hers Sparkle Fireworks Grekin-McKee), a chocolate bunny, and random cheap items from Target. Joe and I had also – at midnight, when we were both aching for sleep – put foil-covered chocolate eggs into plastic eggs and hid them all around the house. (Strangely, this egg hunt was what seemed to convince Lily that the Easter Bunny really HAD stopped by.)
The girls loved their baskets, but emptied them immediately upon learning that an egg hunt was afoot; and the day before, Lily had asked me about Good Friday, and why she’d had no school.
“Good Friday is tied to Easter, and for Christians, these are really big, important holidays,” I said. “They’re about Jesus, who Christians believe was the son of God. Christmas is supposed to celebrate the birth of Jesus – though that actually happened at another time of year entirely – and Good Friday is to remember the day Jesus died. Two days later, Easter marks the day Jesus’ soul was supposed to have risen to Heaven to be with God. And Christians believe that because Jesus sacrificed himself, their souls will do the same after they die.”
Not surprisingly, this launched a whole series of additional questions from Lily: How did Jesus die? Who killed him? Why did they do that? Was he really the Son of God? How could he be?
I answered as best I could, but obviously, this made for a heavy Saturday morning with my 7 year old.
“Do you believe Jesus was the son of God?” Lily asked me. (She regularly arrives at asking me point blank what I believe, which, even though I know it’s coming, never fails to disarm me.)
I paused, choosing my words carefully, as I always do. “I don’t really know. It’s one of those things you have to take on faith, instead of evidence, and it’s always been hard for me to do that.” (I refrained, at this point, from telling Lily that when I was a very young girl, the logistics of Santa visiting so many homes all over the world in a single night made me a skeptic from the get-go.)
“So my answer would probably be ‘no,’” I told Lily. “But you have to arrive at your own answers to these kind of questions. You shouldn’t believe something just because I do.”
I say this every time we have these conversations, having no idea how effective it is. But it’s all I can do, because I feel like I need to be honest with my interfaith daughters when they ask me questions like this.
“What does all that have to do with bunnies and eggs?” Lily asked.
This made me laugh. “I used to wonder that all the time when I was a kid, too,” I said. “I think it’s just that both are about renewal. Easter’s about Christians believing that Jesus got to live again in Heaven, after his death, at the same time of year that trees are beginning to re-grow their leaves, and animals are re-appearing and having babies. I think that’s how the two things got connected.”
The day after this weighty talk, Joe made a dinner of ham and baked potatoes and rolls, and only as the kids left the table to play did the lingering flavors point me toward a memory.
“Oh, you made an Easter dinner for us,” I said to Joe, remembering that this was often what we ate in my family in the middle of the afternoon on Easter Sunday, after spending a chunk of our morning at a Methodist service.
“Yeah, I thought it would be nice,” said Joe.
Later that evening, I scrolled through friends’ Facebook photos of their kids in crisp, pastel-colored dresses, button down shirts, ties, new shoes, and carefully combed, damp hair. Other pictures showed extended families gathered around dining tables – you could almost hear the cacophony of voices. And I suddenly felt profoundly sad.
I’d been one of those girls, posed in front of the fireplace or the front door each year with my two sisters. We often wore colorful matching dresses that my mom made herself, sometimes with a new hat or purse, and nearly always with new white shoes that almost instantly got scuffed up, despite my best efforts to protect them. All our relatives lived hours away, so Easter dinner consisted of just us – but on that day, after church, my mom would make and spread out the dough for biscuits on a counter; use pastel-colored plastic, cylindrical kids’ cups as if they were cookie cutters, and drop the pucks of dough into her hand before placing them on a baking sheet; and I’d try to sneak chocolate treats from my basket throughout the day.
My sadness at seeing other families having more of that kind of Easter took me by surprise, so I began to work through it in my head. I had zero desire to attend a church service; while I enjoy seeing the girls dressed up, I had no desire to do so myself (I happily lounged in my pajamas until after lunch on Easter, thank you very much); and once my sisters and I grew up, and began having our own families (and the ability to live out our own beliefs), Easter was never an occasion for gathering all of us together.
So what was I feeling so conflicted about?
When I was in graduate school, I worked over one short story I wrote about 37 times, and I could just never, ever quite get it to work. It told the story of a newly pregnant agnostic woman, married to a Jewish man, who suddenly felt a struggle hatching within the marriage over the cultural identity of the couple’s unborn child. The woman feared that her own sense of herself was so muddled that she’d have little to nothing to contribute to shaping her child’s experience and sense of itself in the world; and that she would have nothing to pass on, because the life she’d lived as a child didn’t fit with the person she’d become.
Am I living these anxieties out now? Was my Easter sadness about grieving some of the rituals I choose not to pass along to my daughters, because my beliefs diverge from my upbringing?
Perhaps in part. Making new, interfaith traditions can be a wonderful thing, but inevitably, part of that process involves you rejecting a few old rituals – and there’s guilt in that, as if you’re also, by definition, rejecting the family that raised you in these traditions.
Yet I have to think my feelings were also more broadly about loss. After all, my mom, who died more than 7 years ago, was the one who sewed our floral print dresses, and made our family’s mid-afternoon dinner; she was the one who brushed our hair for photos; the one who took us out shopping for new shoes; the one who herded us out to the car to get to services on time.
Similarly, Friday night will mark the first Passover that Joe’s father – who died last September – won’t be seated at the head of a long, long table of family and friends, holding up a square of matzoh and loudly proclaiming, “Lo! This is the bread of affliction!” This will be the first time Joe’s father won’t sit back in his chair, arms crossed, smiling indulgently as his animated wife leads the rest of us through singing every single awkwardly translated verse of “Dayenu.” This will be the first time someone other than Joe’s father will masterfully, surreptitiously hide the affikomen for the kids (and the young-at-heart adults) to find.
“Will I be hiding it this year?” Joe asked his mother this past weekend.
“I don’t know. I’m still thinking about it,” my mother-in-law replied.
Though it seems a small part of the holiday, I understood her hesitation on this point. Naming a successor is part of accepting a seemingly impossible, unacceptable absence: her husband of 50 years.
So during this past month, I’ve been reminded twice that a holiday often arrives stealthily spring-loaded with the pangs of nostalgia and loss – even if the day is fundamentally based in a religion we no longer practice.