My immediate family is all Jewish, proudly and actively so, but my extended family, like many, if not most, American Jewish families, has Jewish and members who are not Jewish.
Of course, every Jewish family has its unique story of how this came to be. In my family, my father’s sister converted to Christianity decades ago. My first cousins on that side were all Southerners and Christians, some fundamentalists. My husband, a Sicilian-American from Buffalo, converted to Judaism over a decade before I met him.
Based on current demographic statistics, we’re really not that unusual. For at least a decade, a quarter of all marriages in America have been inter-ethnic or inter-racial, and the recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report on their US Religious Landscape Survey shows a significant percentage of Americans joining another religious belief other than the one into which they were born.
The diversity in Jewish families leads to an interesting phenomenon almost every winter. Local journalists, like clockwork, call my office looking for stories about the “December dilemma.” Some years, they think there will be an interesting angle in the fact that Hanukkah and Christmas coincide, and some years they think it’ s interesting that they don’t.
But come spring, no one at all comes calling pursuing a “Spring dilemma” story.
Curious, no? After all, the spring calendar is rife with even more holidays than December’s, and they are holidays that really touch on deep issues of faith, history and philosophical outlook. Passover and Easter compete: they are different theologically; in terms of practice, they often seem mutually incompatible. But not this year: this year there’s Adar Bet. In the secular solar calendar, we get an extra day at leap year, but in the Jewish calendar, we get a whole extra month at leap year (or as Hebrew calendar-makers had it, a pregnant year). This pattern works to make Jewish holidays occur at both the same season of the year and the same phase of the moon. Wise sages of yore chose the happiest of months to repeat occasionally, the spring month of Adar. This year, for the first time in a while, Easter and Passover are a month apart. The journalists haven’t caught on yet, but this year things are very different.
For one thing, where I live, school vacations are not going to be Passover-friendly this year. Observant Jewish kids will have to endure a full week of Passover lunches at school (and their equally weird corollary: the last lunches before Passover when you must eat whatever hametz is left in the house, regardless of whether it makes any sense in a lunch box).
And for this family, this rare calendar phenomenon has also led to the following scenes in my home:
1. Grandpa Al from Buffalo was able to come for a visit because my husband’s spring vacation did not coincide with Passover.
2. I bought a sculpted butter lamb, which I’ll admit I’ve always found fascinating. I brought it to the Easter Sunday meal that my sister-in-law made, keeping our dietary needs in mind. My father-in-law tried to tell me that the lamb is a Polish custom, but I have a Sicilian cookbook that has a photo of one, so I got to argue for its Sicilian authenticity. I didn’t have to sneak it out of the grocery story either; it has a hechsher (kashrut certification).
3. My father-in-law was in my kitchen this week teaching his son and grandchildren how to properly make cannoli filling. The cannoli shells were store-bought (you can’t have everything) and they too have a circle U kosher certification. They’re to be dessert on Easter Sunday.
4. The best for last: Earlier this week, 6:30 a.m., my father-in-law joined me in the kitchen, no one else was up. He caught me making cuccidati filling.
Cuccidati (click here to download the recipe) are basically Sicilian hamantaschen, but when I try to run with that similarity, it drives my husband insane. They’re a fruit and nut filled pastry. Until I came along, they were always served at Christmas. The filling is complicated and weird, involving throwing a whole orange into the food processor, dates, raisins, and if you can find it, mango jam and fifteen other items. Then you’ve got to stir the whole thing forever over a flame to firm it up while at the same time making sure the crazy sticky goo doesn’t burn.
Al took over stirring it so I could check on the laundry. I came back and stirred some more, and asked him if I left out the nuts whether the ancestors would turn over in their graves at the Jewish girl’s audacity. I checked with him to see when the mixture was firm enough to stop cooking it.
The cuccidati are the highlight, as always, of our mishloach manot bags for Purim a day or two hence. I’ve been baking them for years. Years ago I wanted to just use the cuccidati filling and make hamantaschen but my husband said that was going too far in the ethnic blending. So the bags have both cuccidati and hamantaschen in them. And this year, thanks to the extra month of Adar, my father-in-law can watch and participate as his tradition becomes a part of ours.
In my profession and my family life, I work for Jewish continuity. Like all American Jews, I also spend a lot of energy navigating my many hyphenated identities. Like bookends between my father in law’s visit, I heard two extraordinary tales about identity this week: Senator Obama’s speech about race and the chanting of the Book of Esther.
This spring really is different: we have much to consider about the power of traditions and identities, both separate from others and when we blend them with others’–both ways have potential power and value. Our gift and our curse as American Jews at this point in history is knowing when to come together with others and when to stay separate, when to be isolationist and when to be outgoing, where our borders are ones we cannot cross without losing something too essential, and what power there may be in sharing some of what we are with others.