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.
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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.


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