When Your Easter Basket Has Matzo In It
Here's how I establish boundaries when it comes to religion.
When people first meet me, they are sometimes surprised to find out I am Jewish because of my Italian sounding last name. But I am Jewish and so is my Italian husband. He converted to Judaism many years ago. Before we got married, we decided that when we had children, we would raise them in the Jewish faith. So, in our home, we have celebrated only those holidays and traditions. Our kids are not “both,” but they know that mom’s side of the family is one religion and dad’s is another. Although we didn't celebrate Catholic holidays in our home, we went to my in-laws on those special days. We wanted to spend the time with family even if it wasn't our holiday.
Our kids never complained about going to their grandmother’s house for Christmas. That aspect of dual-religion rocked! Spin the dreidel, sit by the tree — it was all good to them. No reason to complain, when you are getting eight nights of presents followed by even more gifts at grandma’s!
But Easter was another story. It was always a hassle because it fell over Passover. Although we are not kosher, we do try to keep the dietary laws of Passover. That means that for eight days, we consume no hametz — any food made from wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt that has been allowed to rise. My mother-in-law insisted on setting up an Easter egg hunt on her front lawn. I didn’t love the idea, but I felt like Scrooge saying the kids couldn’t collect plastic pastel eggs. I told myself it was like a treasure hunt and that it had little religious meaning. But her insistence on serving homemade baked ziti, jelly beans and sprinkle bread was literally hard to swallow.
While there are plenty of people who love matzo (and choose to eat it year -round), my kids and I were not among them. We found keeping Passover tough, and being around all those goodies made it even harder. The kids felt conflicted. They wanted to keep Passover, but they also wanted to devour giant chocolate bunnies. My husband and I tried to convince my mother-in-law not to tempt them, but she refused to give in.
I think it secretly made her happy to hear the kids moan and complain about Passover when they saw all the treats at her house. She would shrug her shoulders and say, “It's not up to me; it's up to Mom and Dad,” knowing this would make the whining grow louder. One year, I decided I couldn't take it and told my husband we needed to “move” Easter. I thought it would be a good compromise. This way, the kids could observe their holidays and still partake in grandma’s goodies on a different day. My mother-in-law was annoyed, and I felt guilty.
Now that the kids are older, I realize that these disputes were not about religion, but about control, loss and letting go. My mother-in-law was widowed in her early 50s, a few months after my husband and I got married. While many of her friends were enjoying an empty nest with their spouse, she was just empty and alone. When our kids were born, I think she believed they might fill some of the void. And they did; they were a source of comfort but also another loss. Her traditions, once so special and revered, were not being passed down to the next generation.
Many years before, she had been a young married mother with three kids who trimmed the tree and decorated Easter eggs together. She pined to do these things with her grandchildren. But they lit menorahs and celebrated Shabbat. Her kids were baptized. They had communions and confirmations. Her grandchildren went to a Jewish preschool and had a b’nai mitzvah. She felt disconnected from these children she was related to and who so closely resembled her own.
The problem was that her grandchildren were my children. I was now the young married mother with three kids, and I wanted to establish my own traditions, rituals and holiday memories. I wanted to be in control because I feared that if I wasn’t, my kids wouldn't feel connected to the religion in which they were raised. Or that they might reject it altogether in favor of the glitzier, more commercial Christmas and Easter.
I don’t regret establishing boundaries when it came to religion; my husband and I feel confident we did the right thing for our family. But I do have a better understanding of why my mother-in-law had trouble accepting our choices.
It’s hard to let go of traditions.
Years from now, I hope that I will be lucky enough to have grandchildren I can’t help but hope that I get to hear them recite the four questions at the Seder — just like my children did long ago.
But if that doesn’t happen, that will have to be okay with me too. If they choose to marry someone of another religion and raise their kids differently than I raised them, I will try to accept their decision without question.
I'm thinking about this now more than ever, when COVID-19 and the need for social distancing has made it impossible for many families, including my own, to celebrate the spring holidays together in person.
It has made me realize that beyond any other tradition in our family, the one I hope my kids don’t let go of is the importance of being together whenever we can.