'Our Haggadah': A Guide For Interfaith Families

Cokie Roberts (far left) and Steve Roberts with Cokie's mother, Lindy Boggs, and children Lee and Rebecca. Cokie, who was raised in what she describes as a "very Catholic" family, hosted her first Passover Seder in 1969. i

Cokie Roberts (far left) and Steve Roberts with Cokie's mother, Lindy Boggs, and children Lee and Rebecca. Cokie, who was raised in what she describes as a "very Catholic" family, hosted her first Passover Seder in 1969. Courtesy of Cokie and Steve Roberts hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Cokie and Steve Roberts
Cokie Roberts (far left) and Steve Roberts with Cokie's mother, Lindy Boggs, and children Lee and Rebecca. Cokie, who was raised in what she describes as a "very Catholic" family, hosted her first Passover Seder in 1969.

Cokie Roberts (far left) and Steve Roberts with Cokie's mother, Lindy Boggs, and children Lee and Rebecca. Cokie, who was raised in what she describes as a "very Catholic" family, hosted her first Passover Seder in 1969.

Courtesy of Cokie and Steve Roberts

When Cokie and Steve Roberts married in 1966, they faced a choice familiar to many mixed-faith couples: practice no religion, pick one or the other, or find ways to observe both. They decided upon the latter. In Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families, the couple describes their approach to celebrating Passover with family and friends of all faiths.

For couples bridging Judaism and other faiths, Passover "is a gateway" holiday, says ABC political analyst Steve Roberts: "You can do it at home, and also you do it in your own way."

Cover of Our Haggadah
Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families
By Cokie and Steve Roberts
Hardcover, 192 pages
Harper Collins
List price: $19.99

Read An Excerpt

That's not to say that developing a Seder — the ritual Passover meal — to fit their unique family was simple. NPR senior news analyst Cokie Roberts was from a "very Catholic" family, she tells NPR's Neal Conan; her mother, Lindy Boggs, was appointed the United States' ambassador to the Vatican after serving in the U.S. Congress as a Representative from Louisiana. "You don't get a whole lot more Catholic than that," Cokie says.

And when it came to developing a new Roberts Passover tradition, Steve had little experience of his own to bring to the effort. His family, while "tribally and culturally Jewish," was not very religiously observant. "The whole notion of us actually celebrating the Seder was sort of strange to [my mother]," he says. "She often said ... the first Seder she ever went to was organized by her Catholic daughter-in-law."

But while the new couple knew they wanted to meld their religious traditions at home, figuring out exactly how to do that was another matter. Hosting her first Passover Seder in 1969 was an intimidating experience, Cokie says. "It's hard enough just to have a dinner party, much less to have one where you have strange foods and the table looks different from any other night."

Cokie had brought a Haggadah — the Jewish text that guides the Seder — from a local synagogue to direct the evening's rituals, but quickly found there were many critics in the room. "I had a lot of friends who felt free to comment," she says. " 'Oh, you left out this part' ... 'Wait a minute, you shouldn't have put that part in,' and all that." The next year, she decided it was time to create a uniquely Roberts Haggadah.

"I gathered up a bunch of Haggadahs, including the Maxwell House classic, and sat down at my Smith Corona manual typewriter ... and typed up our Haggadah. And this book is basically that service," she says.

When Cokie and Steve Roberts married in 1966, they knew they wanted to meld their Jewish and Catholic traditions. "There are many things that make you feel more together than apart," Cokie says. i

When Cokie and Steve Roberts married in 1966, they knew they wanted to meld their Jewish and Catholic traditions. "There are many things that make you feel more together than apart," Cokie says. Felicia Evans hide caption

itoggle caption Felicia Evans
When Cokie and Steve Roberts married in 1966, they knew they wanted to meld their Jewish and Catholic traditions. "There are many things that make you feel more together than apart," Cokie says.

When Cokie and Steve Roberts married in 1966, they knew they wanted to meld their Jewish and Catholic traditions. "There are many things that make you feel more together than apart," Cokie says.

Felicia Evans

The Roberts' have tweaked their book over the years, with input from family and friends of many different faiths. But even with those multicultural, personal touches, Cokie says, "it's not at all hippie-dippy by any means. It does have four children, instead of four sons," she says, referring to a traditional story told at the Seder table about four sons who inquire about the meaning of Passover: one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple and one who does not know how to ask. ("And I was kind and didn't make both the wicked one and the simple one boys," she adds.)

The Roberts are also quick to note that their Haggadah, while a "mishmash," is "not Chrisitianized in any way. ... This is very much a Jewish ceremony that we celebrate." Even so, Christians will find plenty to relate to in Our Haggadah, Steve says. "It's a Jewish holiday, but it's a universal message."

"The Last Supper that is so celebrated in art was a Seder," Cokie says. "The meaning of ... going from slavery to freedom, from death to life are the same. ... There are many things that make you feel more together than apart."

Excerpt: 'Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions For Interfaith Families'

Cover of Our Haggadah
Harper Collins

Actually "our Haggadah" has never looked anything like this. For more than forty years, a stapled together sheaf of papers wearing varying degrees of wine and mint sauce stains — that's been our Haggadah. The original one dates to 1970, and we still have a few copies, typed out on an old Smith-Corona, interspersed with more than a few typos, printed on that shiny paper used by the first copying machines. We revised it once, after twenty-five years, when our neighbor, and a regular participant in our Seders, Doug Firstenberg, offered to print up better typed, more readable copies. At first, we heard howls of protest from our friends — where were the marks and mistakes? It didn't take long of course for us to infuse the "Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition" with a new set of wine stains.

Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families
By Cokie and Steve Roberts
Hardcover, 192 pages
Harper Collins
List price: $19.99

Our Haggadah has also been something of a mishmash where we go back and forth from our homemade sheets to what we call the "blue book," a Haggadah published by the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation that we've used for decades as a supplement to the typewritten pages. Every year Steve and I argue about exactly where in the service we first move to the book, causing hoots and hollers from our longtime Seder buddies who have come to see this dispute as a Passover tradition. It's just one of the many Passover traditions — some silly, some special — that we and our friends, old and new, have come to anticipate annually as we celebrate the festival of freedom that is at the same time universal and unique. People from all countries and cultures can relate to the theme of breaking out of bondage, but it is the Jewish people who have kept alive this celebration, often risking their lives to do it, over thousands of years.

One of the most meaningful stories I've read about Passover is in Yaffa Eliach's Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. She tells about a group of Jews at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp who signed a petition asking the commandant to give them flour to bake the matzo in exchange for their daily bread ration. After they submitted the petition, when they heard nothing from their captors, the Jews were convinced that they had signed their death warrants — that they would become the sacrificial lambs. But then the word came that they could have their flour and build an oven to bake it in and they were able to produce three misshapen black matzo. They put them on a turned-over bunk bed used as a table, along with a broken pot substituting for a Seder plate. "On it there were no roasted shankbone, no egg, no haroset, no traditional greens, only a boiled potato given by a kind old German who worked in the showers." As the prisoners wept, the rabbi leading the Seder recited the Haggadah from memory. And with children surrounding him, he proclaimed the promise of Passover: "We who are witnessing the darkest night in history, the lowest moment of civilization, will also witness the great light of redemption." Even in Bergen-Belsen the rabbi insisted that his people would go from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom. That is the faith and hope that Jews all over the world and in many different languages bring to the Passover table as they ask on the same night the same question: Why is this night different from all others?

But I am not one of those Jews. I am a Catholic who feels privileged to be included in this communion. No one invited me, I pretty much wangled myself in, and that, to me, is the point of transforming our Haggadah into something a little less homespun. There are many non-Jews who want to sit at the Passover table, and many do in churches around America. That's different, however, from serving up your own Seder, which often seems intimidating at best, intrusive at worst. So this is our story of our Haggadah, and, more important, our Passover.

Even though Steve and I knew that we wanted to recognize both of our religions and rituals in our home, we had a somewhat inchoate idea of what that meant. Since Arthur Goldberg had participated in our wedding ceremony, he and Mrs. Goldberg took an interest in our marriage and very kindly invited us to their Seder in 1967, the first Passover after we were married, when we were living in New York. With some trepidation we joined in the somewhat famous Goldberg Seder, held at the time at the residence of the United States' ambassador to the United Nation, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. As tuxedoed waiters served traditional dishes like matzo ball soup and gefilte fish laid out on elegant china, and the guests each took what seemed to me their very comfortable places in reading the words of the ritual, I was both mystified about what was going on and excited to be a small part of it. It wasn't until the crowd started singing freedom songs from the civil rights and labor movements, held over from the days when Goldberg had been a leading labor lawyer, that I felt I could participate with gusto.

Still, I understood that this central ceremony in the Jewish religion was one we needed to celebrate in our home. The next year, when I was pregnant with our first child, I felt even more strongly that Passover needed to be part of our fledgling adult life, but I didn't feel at all capable of doing it on my own. So I asked Steve's parents if they would host a Seder for us. They gamely said yes, though they had never held one before, and Steve's mom was not at all happy to take on the task of cooking a menu outside her usual repertoire. We went to their house in New Jersey, and the four of us read the ancient words out of the very contemporary Maxwell House coffee Haggadah. During dinner Steve's twin brother, Marc, called to talk to his folks and when their father said he would call back later because we were mid-Seder, we could all hear Marc's amazed, "WHY?" at the other end of the line. We could all also hear the whispered reply: "Because Cokie wanted it."

Well, that was certainly true. And by the next year, after we had moved to California, where we knew hardly anyone, it was clear that if "Cokie wanted it," she better figure out how to do it herself. I went in search of a Haggadah and found one in the shop of the closest temple. It was The New Haggadah, published for the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation in 1942, the beloved "blue book," though now it's looking decidedly gray and missing its spine. The Haggadah did a great job of making the ceremony understandable and simple, but after the first year of using it, I found that a couple of our Jewish friends thought it omitted some parts of the service they loved, and I thought it included some preachy object lessons we could do without. So I sat down with several other Haggadahs, including of course the Maxwell House classic, plus our "blue book Bible," and wrote what has since been "our Haggadah." I changed the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition only by expanding gender references (the God of Abraham and Isaac became the God of Sarah and Rebecca as well, and the four sons became the four children), except where that seemed silly.

We didn't want our Haggadah to be too long — that was part of the point of writing our own — so I didn't include every prayer at every part of the service. But in picking and choosing I kept a few things in mind — first, how meaningful the particular prayers were to the Jews at the table: I had learned my first year that some recitations brought back memories that mattered a great deal; another was whether Christians, too, might find their memories jogged by psalms they had heard during Easter services. But frankly, another consideration was keeping guests occupied while I struggled to get dinner on and off the table. As we embarked on this project of putting our Haggadah between hard covers, Steve said, "I think we should cut out 'for his mercy endureth forever.' " I was horrified. It's not only a beautiful responsorial psalm echoed joyously in the Easter Mass; it also allows me to get plates cleared and coffee served while everyone is reciting the lengthy verses. In fact there's many a year when I need the Lord's mercy to endureth a little bit longer because the cleanup takes so long.

There's so much in the Seder service that should seem familiar to someone raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition that there's no reason for first-timers to feel uncomfortable. Anyone who's been taught Bible stories as a child, much less reconsidered them as an adult, knows what Passover is about. Baby Moses in the bulrushes is one of the most common pictures decorating Sunday school classrooms, serving as a prelude to the dramatic story of the Plagues, the Exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and the Jewish flight to freedom. Watching the "Red Sea" part is one of the regular attractions at the Universal City theme park in California, so people who didn't learn the story in the Bible could learn it from the movies. Beyond that, Christian teaching tells us of Jesus's observance of Passover — first as a boy with his family and then as a man with his disciples, who continued to commemorate the festival in their years establishing the church.

From Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions For Interfaith Families by Cokie and Steve Roberts. Copyright 2011 by Cokie and Steve Roberts. Excerpted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers.

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