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Faces at the Table: A Story of Healing and Renewal

My childhood images of Passover are made up of colorful memories. They are images of helping Grandma chop walnuts for the traditional charoset dish (a combination of apples, nut and wine), giggling at inside jokes with Grandpa over dinner, smiling as Mom claimed to hear a knock at the door (it was Elijah visiting, of course), and singing Chad Gad Yah with Dad long after the plates had been cleared from the table. Passover is images of eating Grandma’s homemade matzah brie with extra sugar on top and of playfully bargaining with Dad when it came time to reveal the location of the afikomen–the broken matzah needed for continuation of the seder after dinner. And, most notably, Passover is images of the one night where I, as the youngest member of our clan, had command over the entire family. Indeed, all eyes were on me as I proudly recited the Four Questions–the inquiries about Passover that Jewish youngsters ask of their elders at each Passover seder, and to which the Passover story is the elders’ response.

With these vivid images emblazoned in my mind, Passover to me means family, tradition, and pride in my heritage. Thus, it was no surprise that I wanted to invite my new boyfriend John to our Passover seder when I started dating him during my senior year of high school. After all, I wanted him to get to know me, and Judaism was a central part of who I was and would continue to be. John, a Catholic, had never been to a seder before, and, undoubtedly, there were awkward moments inherent with having him over for Passover that first time–including my family’s formal realization that I was dating someone who was not Jewish. However, over a decade has passed since John first joined in our Passover traditions, and any awkwardness of having him there has largely faded from my memory. John and I got married last year, and having shared in my family’s seders for so long, he is just as adept at singing Chad Gad Yah as the rest of us.

During the year of our engagement, however, the faces around our seder table changed more drastically as both of our families encountered tremendous losses. Earlier that year, my beloved Grandpa passed away. Then, just weeks after my grandfather’s death, John lost his father to lung cancer, leaving John and his siblings without any parents: sadly, their mother had died ten years prior due to a brain tumor. My parents, seeing that both of our families could benefit from being together to share in a holiday, graciously invited John’s brothers and their wives to join us at their house for a Passover seder.

Having four additional faces of people who weren’t Jewish at our table for Passover posed a new dynamic. While my parents and grandmother had met John’s brothers and their wives in various social settings throughout the years, this particular group had never dined together for a formal meal. Before the guests arrived at my parents’ house, I wondered: With more Catholics than Jews seated around the table, would our family’s Passover seem different this year? How would I feel while reciting the Four Questions in front of people who had never heard these questions before? What would John’s brothers and sisters-in-law think of our traditional Passover foods? And, how would they react to my family’s eccentricities, which always seemed to be magnified at this particular holiday?

Inevitably, light-hearted squabbles, ranging from when to serve the bitter herbs to the appropriate vegetable to dunk into salt water were repeated each year at my family’s seder table. Grandma, having been raised in an Orthodox home, felt we should run the seder her way; Dad, however, had a different approach, based on the customs his parents had followed, and Mom just tried to keep the peace with a knowing smile. John and I always found the family bickering quite amusing, but would our new Passover guests walk away thinking my family was just plain weird?

These were not the only questions that loomed in my mind. On a more solemn note, I wondered, how would this Passover feel without Grandpa there? And, wouldn’t the gathering of our two families be a difficult reminder of the absence of John’s parents from our lives?

Despite my apprehension, the seder was a positive experience for all of us. John’s brothers and sisters-in-law were immensely receptive to taking part in it. It didn’t matter that the foods were new to them; they tried everything and asked about the symbolism of the seder plate. They participated in the reading of the hagaddah (the book that retells the Passover story), reclined in the customary position at the table, and drank the traditional Manischevitz wine. John’s brothers, like John, even wore yarmulkes out of respect for my family’s traditions. When it came time for me to read the Four Questions, I realized more than ever their importance: the questions I asked represented the sincere curiosity expressed by our guests throughout the evening. Even my family’s squabbles served as an opportunity to teach John’s brothers and their wives about Judaism as we engaged in discourse about the varied Passover customs practiced throughout the Jewish Diaspora.

It turned out that having John’s brothers and sisters-in-law with us for Passover was a step towards healing the grief we were all struggling with. Indeed, a similar scene played out at the Easter table with John’s family that year. While the absence of John’s dad was raw and noticeably felt, John’s young nieces were just becoming old enough to understand the importance of sharing in a family dinner, and a new baby niece or nephew was expected to be born in the fall. Traditional Easter recipes adorned the table as family members retold stories from prior Easter dinners, and somehow laughter and smiles were present.

Humbly, I realized that for John’s family, as well as for mine, holidays meant family, tradition, and pride in our respective heritages. While our holidays may differ in various ways, they essentially teach the same message of love, togetherness, and renewal.

Melissa Feldman

Melissa Feldman is a senior business consultant and information technology project manager in New York City where she also attends New York University’s Stern School of Business in pursuit of her Master’s of Business Administration Degree. Melissa, a feature columnist for the New York University Stern Opportunity (the student newspaper of the Stern School), resides in Manhattan with her husband, John Desjardins.