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I’m Christian, but my grandparents are Jewish. Can I celebrate Passover?

From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2020. Send questions to [email protected].

Dear Bintel,

I grew up in a Christian home that was not over the top religious but where we tried to take Jesus’ teachings seriously and regularly attended church. My mom worked as the accountant for a Christian organization, and our social circle was rooted in our church community. Prayer is an important part of my life, and I’ve never felt not Christian. But I’m also a little bit Jewish through my grandparents on my mother’s side. My grandmother is Christian, but my grandfather grew up Jewish and his family is all still very actively Jewish. He and my grandmother accept their religious differences. Sometimes he will come with us to church, but he’s never been Christian and it’s not a big deal. He was fine with my grandmother taking my mother to church growing up, and I don’t think he ever minded when she became active in Christian social justice work. My mom has always been Christian, but with a Jewish dad. We are very close to the Jewish side of the family, and I have lots of Jewish cousins. Growing up, we would always go to the seder at my grandparents house (they live less than an hour from my parents) and celebrate with all the extended family. I have very fond memories of this time.

Last year, everything was remote and on Zoom. This year, some of the family that is vaccinated is going to gather together, and we’re trying to figure out if we’ll do a partial in-person and partial Zoom seder, or something else. If the family decides not to do a Zoom seder version, I was thinking I would host a mini-seder in my home with my husband, who is also Christian, but doesn’t have any Jewish relatives. My husband says that would feel really weird, and maybe be inappropriate. I went online and found lots of controversy about Christians who host seders as a Christian ritual (and often without realizing this is something Jews actively still do, and it is not just a relic of Jesus’ time), but I’m not sure that applies. I’ve always been to a seder at Passover, and would like to share that with my husband if I can’t be with my family this year.

In my googling I found this advice column, and I decided to send the question in.

This does feel different! Sometimes we forget that Jewish Christians aren’t always Jews for Jesus types, but Christians who grew up with Jewish relatives. In the coming years, as the children and grandchildren of an increasing number of intermarriages grow up and have their own children, I imagine your exact situation will feel less unique.

I understand why your husband’s first reaction was hesitancy. The truth is, lots of Jews have a uniquely fraught relationship with Christianity, as you are probably aware. The question of Christians adopting modern Jewish rituals (that may or may not have been part of the Jewish legacy of Christianity) is complex, simply because Judaism and Christianity have a distinctly entangled relationship that goes deeper than two different cultures interacting with their varied degrees of cultural power I’ve written in the past on the practice of Christian communities hosting seders, often in the context of a church event, and there are some pointers and conversations there to keep in mind when considering such an event.

In this case, similar to the non-Jewish letter writer who wrote in earlier this year asking if he could throw a ‘Cat Mitzvah’ for his 13-year-old pet, I think the personal connection changes the game. I mean, I’m not sure I’d really get outraged at a Christian couple wanting to host a seder — I might have some questions, perhaps, but not real ire — but especially here, I want to honor your Jewish heritage.

You know this is a Jewish ritual, you’ve celebrated it with Jews, and you are not coming to the seder as some relic of Jesus’ time that has languished for years until Christians today found it and infused it with religious meaning. Presumably, you’ve had to engage with the ideas of freedom, hope, loss and redemption, and sing through the same songs and listen to the same jokes about Elijah’s visit as the rest of us. Your Jewish grandfather is still very much your grandfather, and while your faith means you’re not solely a member of the Jewish people, your place in the community is very real. Your relationship to this ritual is real.

Lots of people honor aspects of their heritage while acknowledging that they are not full citizens of that particular community. If this year leaves you out of the family celebrations, then laugh about the oddity of it all with your cousins and send pictures of your mini-seder. Fill your husband with your favorite memories of your seder. Buy whatever wine first got you drunk as a teenager as you made your way through the four cups. You can be aware of the ways your relationship to this ritual might be different than that of other Jews, but that is true for all Jews as well. In some ways, this is less about the religious meaning of the ritual than it is about the national symbolism of Passover, as the holiday that celebrates Jewish peoplehood. You have a place as a member of the Jewish family, so I say do whatever you need to do to make the seder feel like home.

And while a rebuilt Jerusalem sounds nice, let’s aim for next year in person.

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to [email protected].


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