How Religious Customs Take Their Toll

What Traditions Cross the Two-Way Street of Mutual Acculturation?

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published March 30, 2011, issue of April 08, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Keeping religion at arm’s length from the government is one thing. Keeping one religion at arm’s length from another, especially at the grassroots level of participation, is something else again. Whether we call it ‘‘cultural appropriation’’ or — less ominously, perhaps — cultural borrowing, there happens to be a lot of traffic between faiths in modern America.

Consider, for instance, the practice of gift giving at Hanukkah, which took its cue from Christmas. Or, for that matter, the kinds of goyishe foods (let’s hear it for mac and cheese) that many American Jews routinely consume. More striking still are the ways in which Christian notions of decorum and architecture (all that stained glass!), not to mention family-style seating as well as the sermon, have influenced American synagogue life. In each instance, American Jews have drawn on phenomena not initially their own — and then redefined them.

The same can be said of Christian Americans. They, too, have taken up practices from outside their faith and integrated them into their daily lives. The breaking of the glass at the conclusion of a wedding, or, better yet, the hoisting aloft of the bride and groom while dancing at the reception, has become a familiar pursuit of late within Christian circles. So, too, has the use of a ketubah, the official Jewish marriage document, as a recent New York Times article by Samuel Freedman pointed out, and the wearing of silver “Kabbalah dogtags” and other forms of jewelry with “Kabbalistic themes,” such as red-string bracelets.

All this pales in comparison with the popularity of the Passover Seder within Christian circles. For years, many American Jews have made a point of inviting their Christian neighbors and colleagues to a Seder: an exercise in both demystification and neighborliness. The ancient, food-centered ritual showcases the particularities of Judaism in a friendly, congenial and domestic (read “neutral”) setting. It’s fun, too.

But the participation of Christians in a Seder orchestrated by Jewish friends is only the tip of the iceberg. More pronounced by far is the frequency with which this millennial Judaic phenomenon has appeared over the course of the past decade or so within avowedly Christian — and largely evangelical — contexts. I have in mind here the Holy Land Experience, a religious theme park in Orlando, Fla., where, day in and day out, visitors in shorts queue up in front of the Shofar Auditorium to see the “Passover Seder Presentation.”

According to this peppy, 30-minute rendition of the Passover ritual, the three matzot used in the Seder represent the Holy Trinity; the youngest person in the family asks the Four Questions as an homage to John the Apostle, who was reportedly the youngest person at the Last Supper, and the reason that red wine is consumed at the Seder is that it represents the blood of Christ rather than Manischewitz’s market share or an age-old affinity for the sweetest of grapes.

There’s no need to travel as far as Orlando, though, to participate in a Christianized Seder like this one. The Holy Land Experience may offer a more extreme — and crowded — version of “recovering Passover for Christians,” as Dennis Bratcher’s “Introduction to a Christian Seder” would have it, but it’s hardly an isolated one. Elsewhere throughout the length and breadth of the United States, as a quick Google search makes abundantly clear, Christian Americans have taken to holding their own Seder. Some see it as a way to experience the “story of God’s grace in history.” Others view it as an opportunity to highlight what they have in common with the Jews or to come closer to Jesus, whose last meal on earth happened to be either a Seder or some other religiously inspired get-together. Meanwhile, some Christians even go so far as to substitute matzo for the Eucharist wafer.

Reckoning with these latter-day cultural expressions of mix ’n’ match generates questions galore. Should they be applauded, shrugged off or disavowed? Are they to be born with equanimity, discomfort or resignation? More to the point, how should they be read? As sociology — as reflections of cultural diversity and as byproducts of intermarriage — or as New Age theology?

It all comes down, I suppose, to one’s personal perspective. What’s not up for grabs, though, is the extent to which religion in contemporary America is a two-way street.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.