Yom Rivii, 19 AdarI 5781
Wednesday, 3 March 2021
Pesach 2012 - Part 2

Pesach by Rabbi Janet Burden
11th April 2012

I missed my father’s call again this year – the call he used to make as I would be getting ready for the second night Seder.· “How was your Passover?” he would ask.· “Great,” I would reply.· “We had a good crowd for Seder, but matzah still tastes like cardboard.”· Thus, or on very similar lines, ran our conversation year after year.· I long ago gave up trying to explain to him that there was still another Seder to come.· Bottom line, he never really grasped the idea of a festival that lasted for more than a day.·I’m sure it seemed a bit excessive to him, though Chanukkah made slightly more sense, being in a more normal festive season….

You see, my dad wasn’t Jewish.· Not only that, he had never had much exposure to Judaism or Jewish culture.· Dad grew up in a tiny town in Iowawhere there just weren’t any Jews.· I think the total population of the town of Walnut was about 800 souls – and he was related to half of them.· Most of the inhabitants in that corner of the world were third or fourth generation Americans, primarily of Danish, Dutch or German ancestry.· Cultural diversity in Walnut was expressed by whether you spelt Hansen with “en” or “on.”· One is the Danish and the other the Dutch spelling, but I never could remember which was which.· Thus his world was - and remained for most of his life - largely homogeneous.

Imagine my dad’s surprise, then, when his youngest daughter chose to become Jewish.· Wow.· I’d had plenty of odd notions in the past, but becoming Jewish was on another level entirely.· He hadn’t been that fussed when I stopped being Christian in high school.· Religion generally didn’t interest him all that much – he and my mum had taken us to church and Sunday school mostly because that was what everyone else did.·· And, too, the church would provide a safe social venue for my sister and I that would give us a moral and ethical framework.· They were right about that, at least while we were very young.· But when I decided at sixteen that I couldn’t believe much of what I had been taught, they respected my choice and left me alone.

When I became involved with Jews and Judaism, I was at university studying for my Master’s degree and in search of MEANING:· not only with a capital ‘m’ but with the whole word writ large.· I was horrified by the mess our world was in and wanted to find some framework within which I could try to change things.· I became a social activist, and through this work, became involved with the Jewish community.

But it isn’t my story that I want to focus on today.· It’s my dad’s story – and the question of how non-Jewish family members fit into the lives of practicing Jews.· I know that my story isn’t unique.· For a whole variety of reasons, including intermarriage as well as conversions, many Jewish people have non-Jews in their families.· In the Orthodox world, this is talked about in hushed tones, as if it were something shameful.· The undercurrent of disapproval is so strong that many good Jews decide to leave the synagogues they grew up in, even though they often retain fond memories of them.·· This works to the benefit of Progressive synagogues, where attitudes are at least slightly more open.· Yet I worry sometimes that we don’t always live up to our own rhetoric.· We talk about being open and inclusive, but are we really as accepting as we could be?· Aren’t we sometimes guilty of buying into the narrow-minded attitudes that drove so many of our members away from Orthodoxy?· Could it be that we secretly fear that the presence of non-Jews in our lives makes us less authentically Jewish?

I wish I could say that the questions here were rhetorical, and that the so-called “right” answers would trip off every tongue. “Yes, we are inclusive!”·“Of course we don’t construct our Judaism on racial lines!”· “We reject this ridiculous ‘authenticity’ game!”· But I can’t.· I can’t, because I have realised that unhelpful attitudes often become internalised.· Some years ago, I had the uncomfortable experience of explaining that my father was due to arrive in Britain the day after Yom Kippur.· He and my step-mother were treating themselves to a trip on the QEII. ·“So they’ll have spent Yom Kippur on ship?” someone asked, perfectly reasonably.· With a slight feeling of butterflies in my stomach, I said simply – “It’s OK.· My dad’s not Jewish.”

It’s OK.· Gosh.· At least for a brief moment there, it didn’t feel OK – and I am pretty practiced in this.· I’m a rabbi, for heaven’s sake!

The incident provoked a memory of pledge I made to myself years ago after an experience at a Jewish summer camp.· One of the kids asked Tracy, one of the adult helpers at the camp, if she had had a hard time learning the Hebrew for her bat mitzvah.· She immediately responded, without embarrassment or shame, that her experience wasn’t the same.· She had been an adult when she did her bat mitzvah, because she had converted to Judaism.· I was amazed when she said this.· Tracy was one of the most committed Jews I had ever met.· She ‘looked Jewish,’ whatever that meant.· She taught cheder and was regularly called up to Torah.· Tracy?· A convert?· The discussion suddenly became animated and the kids were on the edge of their seats, wanting to hear her story.

Later I asked her why she had volunteered this information.· “You could have just said ‘yes,’ you know.· We both know how hard it was to learn.”·“Yes, I could have,” she said.· “But you know, many of these kids are wondering what it means to be Jewish.· A lot of them still think that it’s a slightly unfortunate accident of birth.· The fact that someone might chooseto become Jewish because it’s a wonderful thing to be has probably never crossed their minds.”· “And now it has,” I said, amazed that I could have failed to see this before.· “And now it has,” she smiled.

I made up my mind, right then and there, that I would always follow Tracy’s example.· In this season of freedom, I rededicate myself to defying the negative attitudes that we inadvertently internalise.· They can be just as tyrannical as any Pharaoh.

Chag Sameach