“We read from this book called a haggadah and everyone has a chance to read at least once,” I explained to my boyfriend (who later became my husband) as we were traveling to my parents’ house for his first Passover.
“One thing you have to remember,” I continued, “is that you page through the book backwards.”
Jon gave me this weird look, like he didn’t believe me.
“It s not a big deal,” I reassured him. “There is Hebrew on the right page and English on the left. We all read in English, except for my cousin. He’s the only one in my family who can read and speak Hebrew, so we let him make the rest of us look bad. Don’t worry. It’s actually fun. And afterwards, we have a big meal. My mom usually makes chicken and stuffed cabbage. Have you ever had matzah before? I’ve heard it tastes similar to a communion wafer.”
At this point, I think he stopped listening to me. He was probably still trying to make sense of the backward paging.
“OK, so you’ve told me about all the food. But, what exactly is the meaning behind Passover?” he asked, almost challenging me to see if I knew the answer. But I knew the real reason he asked this was because he wanted to be well-informed. He knew he was going to feel a little uncomfortable, but I think he felt that by knowing more about the holiday he could at least seem more at ease. I gave him the abridged overview: “Well, it s a Jewish festival, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt over 3,000 years ago. The name Passover essentially comes from the account of how Moses promised the Israelites that God would pass over their homes during the night of the slaying of the Egyptian first-born.”
“Hmm, interesting,” he replied.
In Jon-speak, that meant that as a Catholic, he was not offended in any way by the holiday.
When we walked into my parents’ house, my relatives were crowded around the bowl of chopped liver. Now I know that eating before the seder isn’t the norm, but my family has been known to bend the rules a bit. Besides, the chopped liver helped to keep my relatives out of the kitchen so my parents could focus on preparing the main meal. After greeting everyone, I went straight for the liver while Jon made a wide arc around the bowl and went straight for a glass of soda. I have never been able to get him to try the chopped liver, even with the knowledge that it is my grandmother’s special recipe.
My parents like to have ecumenical seders. Jon is never the lone person who isn’t Jewish because they always tend to invite one or two other guests who aren’t Jewish. Jewish or not, everyone always seems to enjoy Passover there. I’ve never been to a seder anywhere else, but I’m fairly sure ours are unique.
At the start of the seder, there was the usual chaos over where everyone should sit. And, of course, the inevitable question from my father to my mother: “Ethel, are you sure the potatoes are done?”
You see, in my family, we serve boiled potatoes as the green vegetable, a tradition that my Hungarian grandfather started many years ago. Each year, the potatoes are either overdone, so that they crumble when dipped in the salt water, or undercooked, so that the seder is delayed. This year, I was betting on overdone.
In the meantime, the yarmulkes were passed out. From velvet blue to white to plain black, the yarmulkes represented the various bar mitzvahs and weddings my parents had attended over the years. I whispered to Jon that he didn’t have to wear one if he didn’t want to. I think he felt he should out of respect for my family. He reached for a white one, with the inscription “Roger & Jennifer, November 4, 1990”–my brother’s wedding.
The seder proceeded, and my father said the blessing for the wine, which is the only Hebrew he knows. At this point, Jon had his first encounter with kosher-for-Passover wine. He was clearly shocked, as a wine enthusiast, that something could taste that bad and not be labeled poisonous. I could tell he was dreaming of his favorite Merlot as he cautiously sipped the Manishevitz Concord Grape.
Next, the potatoes were passed around on forks, with pieces landing on various parts of the table. I was right–overdone. My father led the reading, using his special haggadah that has penciled notes in it that tell him what to do and what parts are OK to skip over. The skipping, which of course is meant to save time, actually slows things down because everyone ends up losing their place at least once. It was my uncle’s turn to read next. He was three pages behind. When my cousin read the Hebrew portion, we all got hopelessly lost. When it was time for the simple son to ask a question, my father called upon his youngest brother, an honor he bestows on him every year.
Just as Jon was overcoming his trauma with the wine, the gefilte fish appeared.
“What is that?” he asked me, while poking the gelatin that accompanies the fish.
“Oh, you don t have to eat that part, but the fish is really good, especially if you dip it in horseradish.”
“I’m not touching this.”
“Give it to me. I’ll eat it,” I offered.
The haroset, which I won’t go near because of my nut aversion, actually got a nibble from Jon. I’m sure he was wishing for one of his mom’s home-cooked ravioli dinners right about then.
When the seder was finished and the chicken was brought out, Jon finally perked up. I pulled the yarmulke off his head because I realized that it actually made me feel uncomfortable. There was no reason he should wear something that only Jews were expected to wear.
I noticed Jon thumbing through the rest of the haggadah.
“Don’t worry, we don’t read the ‘After The Meal’ portion.”
“I don’t know. We just never do.”
I realized my answer was inadequate, but Jon was used to that when it came to me describing my family s religious traditions.
When we were on our way home, I asked Jon, “So, you survived the first Mitty family seder. What did you think?”
“It was fine, no big deal. I mean, I was a little uncomfortable since I was the only Catholic there. I felt like I had a big sign on my head.”
“Oh please. You know my family isn’t like that. And besides, Karen isn’t Jewish, so you weren’t the only one.
“Oh, I thought she was Jewish. Whatever.”
I knew that fact made him feel better, even though it shouldn’t have mattered.
Jon has been attending my family’s Passover seders for the past eight years. He is an old pro at reading from the haggadah and he’s even gotten used to the wine. The chopped liver and gefilte fish still remain untouched by him. However, there’s always next year [in Jerusalem].