Passover Seder Without a Jewish Mother

I am a Jew married to a Jew. In America, outside of Orthodox circles, this makes me and my husband a little odd: You know the Pew intermarriage statistic already, probably. (That’s the last time I’ll use the word “intermarriage” in this essay.) What makes us even odder — and yet by some measurements more normal — is that both our fathers were born Jewish, but neither one of our mothers was.

Except there, our families deviate: My husband’s mother converted and mine, suspicious of religion in general, chose to remain just outside Judaism, watching her children grow up in a culture that remained somewhat alien to her.

I think about my mother’s choice all the time, but not until I began attending Josh’s family’s seder did I think about the choice presented to both women more than 30 years ago, and where it had taken them. On the surface, they are both Jewish insider-outsiders: conversational in the rhythms and flavors of Judaism, if unable to entirely leave behind whatever silent baggage came from their Protestant upbringings. But at Passover in particular — all those people around the table, hard to hide from anyone — their differences are thrown into relief.

Josh’s mother, during her conversion process many years ago, made a Haggadah. Zine-like, with a green cover, it captured a moment in the evolution of her Jewish learning. Comprised of photocopies from both an egalitarian and a traditional Haggadah, it was missing a few parts of the service, and included an oddball page at the end with something about God taking pleasure in his martyrs. But it emerged from the cupboards every year, and her three Jewish sisters-in-law were as fluent in its rhythms as if it had been their childhood copy.

Every year, she also listened patiently as her husband’s sisters instructed her in the proper way to make their own mother’s recipes. Caught in the middle of their arguing over the right ratio of apples to wine in the haroset, there must have been a moment where she felt herself alter: from the uncertain but determined woman who put together the bit of Judaism she knew, just enough; to the woman who was a Jew, whose family had made her one. The Haggadah, which might have begun as a solitary record of one woman’s journey, transformed into a community document, as the rest of the family took on her learning as their own.

My mother, on the other hand, had always shied away from outward displays of community. Any hint of ideology put her on her guard: academics who peddled their theories at dinner, raucous festival crowds, overly pushy salespeople. At the seder we attended every year in Pittsburgh, at the house of old friends, I would watch her across the table as the service progressed. She perked up at moments of invention, when we enlivened the text in an un-prescribed way — like when our host injected some Shakespearean bravado into the stuffy English translation of the Maxwell House Haggadah — and hummed along when she recognized a tune. Otherwise, I knew, she kept her eyes on the page but let her attention wander. It was easy to imagine the girl she had been: stubbornly independent, discontented with stillness, anxious to move.

Who were we, their children, at these tables? Josh felt loyal to his family’s seder, and knew its order and his role in it. He defended even the parts of it that made me homesick, so different were they from my own traditions. Like his mother, he valued the community it created above whatever individual satisfaction it could confer. As for me, after my family stopped going to our friends’ house, I was constantly trying to remake our seder, which grew small and without ceremony. In college, I came home and argued over the text as I had seen the Orthodox rabbi at my Hebrew school do, until someone chided me for delaying dinner. I learned and sang songs I hadn’t been brought up with, trying to believe with my body when I had trouble believing with my brain. Community here, restless reinvention there: We were following the examples not just of our fathers, whose tradition this was, but of our mothers, who had made themselves essential to it whether they claimed it or not.

Sometimes, I envy Josh his mother’s engagement, her comfort at the center of her family’s Jewishness. I feel this especially on Passover, the holiday when everyone is supposed to feel free together. But I can’t paint my own mother out of our holiday portrait, and why would I want to? There she is, licking her finger to turn the page, reminding me and my brother that no matter what group we belong to, we also come from doubt.

I wish I could go back to 1982 or so and listen to the conversations our parents had when they decided to marry, when our fathers expressed to our mothers that they wanted to raise Jews. Who were the Jews they imagined their children would be? Jews like themselves? They each knew, perhaps, that they couldn’t miss the opportunity to transmit to their children what seemed inseparable from themselves, whatever ineffable quality comprised their Jewishness.

But how, exactly? The women our fathers wanted to marry could never raise Jewish children quite like they had been. In fact, there would never again be a Jew in their families who took Judaism entirely for granted. Instead, as our mothers showed us, we would assemble and disassemble it, doubt it and sing along with it, get bored with it and embrace it and get it wrong. We would do this even at the table where our families gathered, as we recited the words of our ancestors and filled the glasses of our dead.

Header Image: “Next Year in Jerusalem” by Bela Taraseiskey (2007, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 36 inches).

Leah Falk

Leah Falk’s poems and essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, FIELD, Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. She runs programming at the Writers House at Rutgers University-Camden and lives in Philadelphia.

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