What matters?

“What matters?” Zoe likes to ask, her arms held up in the universal child-asking-a-question gesture. She thinks it means “what’s the difference?”  To me, she sounds just like Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof whenever she says it, most often after I correct her pronunciation of a word. ( “Shrimp, shrump,” she shrugs. “What matters?”)
In the weeks leading up to Passover, I’ve been thinking a lot about what matters. Many years ago, I lived a life bound quite closely by halacha, Jewish law. While there were still decisions to make, many choices were cut and dry, and didn’t involve much weighing of personal priorities. I did things they way they were supposed to be done, and the way so many other Jews around me were doing. This life worked well for me when I lived on the Upper West Side, in a vibrant community of  really thoughtful and relatively diverse observant Jews. But when I moved to a small Jewish community with very few observant Jews, I began to feel a need to balance my need for community with my love of (many parts of) traditional Judiasm. (What did it mean to keep shabbat all alone? What level of kashrut did I want when I no longer had to worry about who would and wouldn’t eat in my house?) When I married and started a family with a non-Jewish man, and essentially cast my lot outside of the traditional community forever, the questions became both more complicated and more urgent.
Passover has always been one of the more challenging times of  year for my husband and me as an interfaith couple, as I wrote about here, for It’s not just the 8 days of no beer in the house, although it is some of that. More accurately, it’s the many layers of metaphor tucked away in those forbidden beers. As much as I love my husband, and though there are probably hundreds of mitzvot I do not manage to observe, I can’t seem to let go of, or even ease up on, my strict observance  of Passover.
So this year, I decided to make thing easy for all of us. I’m working full time, teaching at a day school, which means I have the whole holiday off, as does my older daughter. So, I thought, let’s go to Bubbe’s for Passover. A great plan – no kashering the kitchen, no Passover shopping, and lots of quality family time. But, no Papa for the whole holiday??? That didn’t seem right to me. So, I re-thought, let’s do seders here and then go to Baltimore.  But, well, my brothers were going to be at my mom’s and I wanted them to see the girls too. So, I re-re-thought, let’s have one seder here and then go to Bubbe’s.
Our final version of the Passover plan has left me having to make what feels like a million big and small decisions. Should I travel on Yom Tov so that we can be with both my husband and my family of origin? (yes.) Do we accept the invitation to a first seder with friends I really want to be with, but don’t keep Kosher for Passover as strictly as I do (yes, but I’m bringing some of the required foods and a main dish double wrapped in foil.) Do I change over and kasher our kitchen for one day of Passover? (yes, but only the bare minimum of things I will be using. One day of paper and plastic seems only a wee bit environmentally sinful.)
As the one and only partner who really cares about how Judaism is practiced in our home, every decision is in my hands. And because I don’t feel obligated to halacha above and beyond all other values, each decision, each glass, each mug and each crumb, and what I do with them, is complicated. And fraught with a lot of hand wringing. And, somewhat inexplicably, guilt. It was so much easier when I was a “good Jew.” But I am learning a lot about….what matters. To me, anyhow.
ps, Here we are, one big happy family, searching for chametz. For the first time, at their request, the girls hid four of the pieces Keith and I to find. They loved helping us try to find theirs, but hadn’t quite reconciled their divergent definitions of “hot” and “cold.” Most often, we were both. At the same time.

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posted March 29, 2010 at 3:06 am

Your blog today started a conversation between my husband(non-Jewish) and me (Jewish) about Pesach this year.
Our compromise? No beer or bread for him, no chameitz for me.
First Seder in London with my sisters, then go to my parents in South Africa for the rest of Pesach.
Chag Sameach and thankyou!

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posted March 29, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Oh yeah, I hear you. As a convert married to a born-Jew who is the most “fanatic” in his family (meaning he doesn’t eat chametz all week but won’t bother cleaning or getting rid of it), EVERY decision seems to be up to me. And most of the “doing” that those decisions require.
And every year’s a little bit different. This year I was doing the cleaning and cooking with a migraine, so my standards were a little more lax than I had anticipated. We’re still apparently the zealots of the family. :)

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Minnesota Mamaleh

posted March 29, 2010 at 3:27 pm

thanks for an honest post, amy. life is a series of choices and you’re right, each one *is* a reflection of what we deem important (and not, i guess). i really enjoyed the “happy fam” pics– looked like a good time, indeed. chag sameach!

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posted March 30, 2010 at 10:04 am

Great blog, Amy – thanks (as always), for your honesty. As a convert married to a born-Jew for 32 years, I always felt like I had to meet the highest of possible standards: after all, I had to “catch up” to those that were born knowing how to do this stuff.
I think Minnesota Mamaleh has it right: life if a series of choices and each one reflects what’s important. The only thing I’d add is that I’ve found what’s important at one time in my life may not be the same forever.
Chag Sameach!

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Frume Sarah

posted April 6, 2010 at 1:51 am

It’s always about making the best decision at a particular point in time given all of the variables at that particular point in time. What works one year, might not work next year. I think it is important to capture the spirit of the Law. And it seems as though you have done that by making the choices you have made. I hope that you were fulfilled by all of your decisions :)

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