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On This Year’s Seder Menu: Matzah & Mom Guilt

I am a product of the Jewish day school system and regularly thank my parents for my Jewish education which I believe helped give me a soul. Despite my study of the Torah and Talmud, however, I have become a secular Jew whose connection to Judaism has a lot to do with bagels. (And perfecting Smitten Kitchen’s chicken soup recipe.)

Nevertheless, as the High Holidays roll around, I feel the inevitable pang of guilt that I am not doing enough to instill my 7-year-old sons with a Jewish connection. It feels hard enough to teach them how to read and write at grade level after a pandemic, let alone 3500-year-old religious values that I may or may not believe in. But it’s important to me that they be able to make an informed decision about religion in their life, as I was able to — and to do this, I must teach them.

I head to the library and take out an Illustrated Jewish Bible so we can start “In The Beginning.” I read the boys the story of creation and Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden and the snake; when I’m done, they sit with what I think is a meaningful pause, taking in the important lessons about good and evil and rebelliousness and redemption. We should have done this sooner.

One of my sons turns to me. “You’re telling me they gave up paradise for an apple?”


“An apple, apple?”


“Like, I get giving it all up for a candy apple. But just an apple?”

I try my best to refocus them, talking about the importance of not succumbing to our immediate temptations and sacrificing long-term happiness for instant gratification, but they can’t hear me over their heated debate of the type of apple they would need to be offered in order to give up life in paradise. It seems there would, at the very least, need to be peanut butter involved.

“Enough about the apples!” I yell as I make them an apples-and-peanut-butter snack.

I regroup. I was too ambitious; I started way too far back. I can pivot. It’s Passover — so maybe let’s just focus on teaching this holiday and all they’ll encounter at the Seder at their Bubbie’s house. So, I talk about Egypt and Moses and Pharaohs and plagues and matzah and desserts and slavery and freedom.

My son, who absolutely knows how to ask a question, starts again.

“But how did he part the sea?”

“He just did!”

“But, like, how?”

“He just did! He can do that! Wait. Why do you assume God is a man!?”

My son and I continue to argue over the mechanics of separating water and the societal patriarchal linguistic default, when my other son pipes up.

“I don’t understand,” he says. “God killed all those firstborn kids? What did they do? Why did they deserve to die?”

I look at my son — my incredibly-deep feeling, sensitive son, with the most beautiful heart — who decided at the age of 3 to become a vegetarian because, as he put it, “a cow would be sad if I ate him so why would I eat a cow?” I scoop him up into my arms as he cries. He cries deeply and meaningfully about children who died before they lived a life, and innocent animals dying en masse from pestilence and water turning into blood and just eternal darkness generally. My son is now refusing to go to any seder at all. Plagues, it turns out, are scary.

I’ve been trying to teach my kids that there is nothing that justifies violence. I’ve been trying to instill in them that no matter what the world does to us, we must remain steadfast in our goodness. In this fractured world, we must remain vigilant in our devotion to Anne Frank’s words that in spite of everything “people are really good at heart.” We talk about this a lot — how Gru, and even Dr. Octopus, are still good at heart. I don’t know how to reconcile all this. I try to explain to him that these stories aren’t literal, they didn’t literally happen, but are like fairy tales with important lessons.

“What’s the lesson?” he asks me, wiping his eyes. I stroke his sweet face and think.

“I think the lesson is to focus on the miracles,” I tell them. “The story of Passover has a lot of suffering in it, but it also has a lot of goodness. It has a lot of miracles. However God may have parted the sea —” (I hold my hand up to stop my other son who is about to pipe in) “— however he or she got the water to move, that’s a miracle.”

Our family, too, is a miracle. Like Moses and Pharaoh’s daughter, my boys were not born to me. They joined our family by adoption at two and a half. And just like Moses, I tell them, they may also lead and inspire people. Maybe they’ll choose to do it in a different way. Like, with less frogs.

No, they both tell me, they love frogs.

“We focus on the good,” my son repeats, now smiling. So at our seder we will focus on being together with family, on chicken soup, and on the frog decorations their Bubbie puts along the table.

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