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!
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • 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.