“They tried to kill us.
That’s my family’s mantra for all Jewish holidays since we first started—knowingly—celebrating them a few years after we arrived in the U.S. from the Soviet Union.
I use the word “knowingly” because in Soviet Ukraine, my great-aunt Riva would invite my family over for elaborate family dinners on certain days, without ever explaining why. We went along with it because her cooking was amazing and enough of a reason to warrant a celebration.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the Soviet Union, Judaism was effectively banned; limited to private practice and houses of worship. Most Jews, including my grandparents, left their shtetls (small Jewish village) for cities to join secular society, which for the first time in history, promised to accept them as equals. As a result, many Jewish traditions were lost to my parent’s generation.
To be clear, my family always knew they were Jews, even if they didn’t realize they were celebrating Jewish holidays when they sat at Riva’s table and ate her delicious food. Government sanctioned ethnic discrimination and the rampant anti-Semitism in Soviet society wouldn’t allow them to forget that little detail.
Fast forward to today, the spark of Judaism has been reignited in my family in America. And that’s because of the love and support of my husband, Andy. While Andy is not Jewish (notwithstanding his .04% Ashkenazi Jewish heritage from 23andMe), he has always understood how much Judaism means to me and has been an active partner in my Jewish journey.
He’s been so instrumental in my discovery of my Jewish roots, from supporting my year-long sabbatical to study Torah and Talmud in Jerusalem, to visiting Chabad houses abroad. Andy has also joined in on celebrating holidays and Shabbat. And when we found out we were expecting last year, we knew our son would be raised Jewish because we had discussed it on our first date. As an interfaith family who celebrates Christmas and Easter, our shared traditions nourish and strengthen our family bond.
Growing up, I was drawn to my family’s history and over the years, I’ve tried to regain those lost traditions. I have the privilege of living openly as a Jew in the U.S. compared to the Jews in my parents’ generation who felt compelled to hide their Jewishness from friends and neighbors. As a result, we never officially celebrated Jewish holidays with intention until we immigrated to the United States.
After arriving in the U.S., my family grew more comfortable and safe as Jews. Our Passover traditions expanded as we grew into our identities. We started with only eating matzah, then added a seder plate on our table, and finally expanded the menu to include matzah ball soup, brisket and gefilte fish. We combined our new holiday ritual alongside our Eastern European fare of selyodka pod shuboy—a layered dish that includes herring, mayonnaise and boiled vegetables—and salat olivier, known as Russian potato salad. We even put our own unique spin on the seder plate and replaced the shank bone with a beet. This gradual return to tradition was welcomed while repeating the age-old mantra at every dinner toast:
“They tried to kill us.
While we were certainly engaged in the spirit of the holiday, something was missing: Biblical connection. We never celebrated with a proper seder. Other than embracing quality family time, Passover lacked historical symbolism for us (despite the parallel between our family escaping Soviet oppression and the story of the Hebrews fleeing slavery in Egypt). That’s why I always spent the first night of Passover at a secular dinner with my family and the second night at a traditional seder with friends or at a local synagogue. This allowed me to enjoy both experiences and so I never considered merging them.
When Andy and I started celebrating the holidays together, it was important for me to introduce him to the duality of my Passover celebrations. Thankfully, he embraced them wholeheartedly and we celebrated Passover like this until we left D.C. It meant so much to me to have a partner to share the experience with; and although Andy did not share my beliefs, he recognized their importance to me and became a happy participant (especially if there was food involved).
Last year, at the start of the pandemic, we couldn’t enjoy our usual celebrations. Now, in our family’s COVID bubble, we will celebrate together in person once again. And we’ll add a new tradition—a short kid-friendly seder where my niece and nephew will search for the afikomen.
I’m looking forward to the first “real” seder our family has ever attempted, and our son, Ephraim’s, first seder. My usual secular Passover dinner and the traditional seder are slowly starting to merge in a way I never imagined they could. I’m not sure I’ll ever need to go back to two separate seders.
As my family grows into these traditions and becomes more comfortable embracing Passover, I’m grateful Ephraim will never know a time where Passover was celebrated without a seder or not at all. He will always have the opportunity to learn more about Judaism; even the traditions I don’t know.
Though my family struggled with their Jewish identity after losing many traditions, we’re all working to ensure that Ephraim and his cousins understand the significance of Passover—not just as Jews, but also as descendants of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe.