Our Integrated Passover Seder

We took our show on the road this Passover. Thanks to the CDC’s guidance, my husband Ted and I loosened up and took our first post-COVID, double-vaccinated plane trip to Austin, Texas, where our son and his family live. It was time for our annual Pesach celebration — a seder put on by my husband and me, two old-school secular Jews whose goal is to entice grandchildren to forget about the Easter bunny for a minute and get them excited about plagues, dry crackers and chopped apples.

This time, we came prepared. Our grandkids, ages six and eight, are now old enough to follow a story and sit at the table longer than 10 minutes. Our anxiety to put on a great seder comes from the fact that our son Joe married Kate, a Catholic woman from North Carolina, who did not grow up around Jews. Honestly, no one does a more child-friendly Christmas or Easter holiday than my daughter-in-law. We’re talking glittery decorations, tons of toys, crafts activities that rival Martha Stewart and a cornucopia of candies. How can a Jewish grandma hope to compete?

When they first got married, I found Kate’s being Southern even more exotic than her Catholicism. Who ever heard of a grown woman wearing a pink sun dress with a ruffle? I was from the New York school of feminine style, epitomized by crisply tailored grey and black clothes, brought to life by an occasional splash of white. All body parts covered!

After a while I could see that our differences were mostly minor matters of style. When your children get married, your world and your family are supposed to expand, right? Plus they loved each other! As for religious differences, many of my friends were raised Catholic. Most had left the religious part of being Catholic behind, just as we had with Judaism, as they drifted into adulthood. I had a hunch that Joe and Kate would do the same.

Theirs was the first intermarriage in our small family. Since the theme of Joe’s Bar Mitzvah speech was, “I am not a Jew,” it wasn’t a big surprise. I wondered how questions of identity would be handled once children arrived, but I kept that to myself, like so many things.

Folklore says that a mother exerts more influence on matters like religion and childrearing, so I did not expect a lot of Yiddishkeit to seep into Joe’s new home. Like many secular Jews, Judaism is more or less boiled down to two holidays a year and a few artifacts that are tucked away in his home — a menorah, a tallit, a Bar Mitzvah Kiddush cup. And so, we arrived for the holidays this spring ready to give the children a dose of schmaltz.

We arrived for the holidays this spring ready to give the children a dose of schmaltz.

The seder was a huge success. Now that the kids are old enough to participate, we hit all the highlights. As always, Ted was in charge of the religious aspects of the seder. He brought cheerful Haggadot for everyone, with blank pages for the kid’s little fingers to color in. I brought my world-famous Charoset recipe — the one where there’s nothing weird, and finicky kids can pick out the raisins.

I asked Ted to let me kick off the celebration, since I’m known for my ability to throw a party. I immediately turned up the volume on my iPad and blasted the song “L’chaim” from the original cast recording of “Fiddler on the Roof.” The music may have been new to them, but when I grabbed my husband’s hand to dance a rollicking hora, they joined in with gusto, as did Joe. Afterwards, Kate got to ask her questions: What does “L’chaim” mean? and “What is Fiddler on the Roof?” Oy.

Unlike the old days, Ted led a condensed seder. We were both pleased when 6-year-old Finn knew why we eat the matzoh. And 8-year-old Piper knew another place where people were slaves, right here in the United States. It turns out that Joe and Kate had started reading the story of Passover with the kids in advance, so they had some time to digest the story.

At the table, we all raised our glasses of sparkling water and toasted to a better year. I got their attention by talking about what it means to me to be a Jew. I spoke about being a good person, helping others, always telling the truth (especially to your parents) and honoring books. All values the children could understand. Of course, when they each got $5 from grandpa for finding the afikoman at the seder’s end, they were dazzled. “That’s more than I’ve ever seen,” said Finn, his eyes shining.

To seal the deal, Piper, my baking partner, and I concocted a special dessert to end the meal on the right festive note. We had baked cream puffs that morning. After dinner, we all made a mess turning them into the French dessert Profiteroles — cream puffs filled with vanilla bean ice cream and drizzled with dark chocolate hot fudge sauce. Definitely not pesadich, but tons of fun. I guess you could say that the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. L’chaim!

Los Angeles food writer Helene Siegel is the author of 40 cookbooks, including the “Totally Cookbook” series and “Pure Chocolate.” She runs the Pastry Session blog. During COVID-19, she shared Sunday morning baking lessons over Zoom with her granddaughter, eight-year-old Piper of Austin, Texas.


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