Cokie Roberts Shares Personal Traditions From Her Interfaith Marriage

Cokie Roberts and her husband Steve pen a book based on the Haggadah.

ByABC News via logo
March 4, 2011, 3:38 PM

March 7, 2011— -- For those of the Jewish faith, Passover typically entails reading the Haggadah, a religious text that sets the order of the Seder. For forty years, journalist and ABC News contributor Cokie Roberts' Haggadah consisted of "a stapled together sheaf of papers wearing varying degrees of wine and mint sauce stains," a document she typed out herself in 1970.

Since then, Roberts' Haggadah has evolved into many different versions, just like her Passover traditions have evolved into a unique multi-cultural celebration that is exclusive to no faiths. In her and her husband Steve's new book "Our Haggadah," the couple shares a Passover guide for multifaith families based on their Haddagah, as well as their own Passover experiences as an interfaith couple.

Read the Preface from the book below, then check out some other books in the "GMA" library.

This Year in Your House

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 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 ountries 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 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.

In fact, the Passover celebration is one of the few stories told about Jesus as a child, so I remember being fascinated with it as a little girl. "Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of Passover," Luke's gospel tells us, but when he was twelve years old, "when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it." I couldn't get over that. How could he stay behind without his mother knowing about it? I remember the priests trying to explain that people traveled in large family groups and that his parents probably assumed he was with cousins and other adults. It all sounded daring and fun. But then Mary and Joseph became frantic, looking for Jesus for three days until "they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers." We are supposed to draw from the story the lesson that Jesus was learned and ready to discuss theology, that he "must be about my Father's business." But I just thought what trouble I would've gotten into if I had pulled anything like that. It also upset me on Mary's behalf—how could he worry his mother so? So it was a story I thought about a lot, and it was a story that started with the Holy Family's annual celebration of Passover.

And the most solemn week of the Christian year begins with Jesus arriving in Jerusalem to the hosannas of his followers who greeted him with palm branches as he entered the city to celebrate Passover. The gospel writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that what Christians now call the Last Supper, so often depicted in great works of art, was in fact a Seder. The Passover meal, argues the Encyclopedia of Catholicism, "celebrates God's liberation of the Jewish people and the continuing covenant with them. Such a celebration offers a model for understanding Christ's liberation of the world from sin through his death." It was at that meal, in his sanctification of bread and wine, that Jesus initiated the sacrament of Holy Eucharist. And some scholars believe that the wine for that first Eucharist came from the third cup of wine in the Seder, the cup of redemption, and the afikomen (about which more later) served as the bread. At the end of the meal, the gospels tell us, Jesus left to suffer his passion after "singing the Passover hymn." I like to think that particular Hallel, or song of praise, was the one I have insisted on—Psalm 136, that's the one where "his mercy endureth forever." Readers of the blessings in the Haggadah will hear very similar words to those in the blessings over the bread and wine in a Catholic Mass. A paper issued by the U.S. Catholic bishops reminds us that the Christian order of worship " takes its form and structure from the Jewish seder: the Liturgy of the Word, with its alternating biblical readings, doxologies, and blessings; and the liturgical form of the Eucharist, rooted in Jewish meal liturgy, with its blessings over bread and wine." The symbolism of the Easter season—the references to Jesus as the Paschal Lamb and to Christ as the Passover—those symbols make more sense once the Seder becomes familiar.

That's true about many New Testament references. When John the Baptist hails Jesus as the "Lamb of God," he's signaling that it will be Jesus, rather than the lamb, who will be sacrificed to take "away the sins of the world." It's important to keep in mind the world that the writers of the books of the New Testament were living in. Rabbi Hillel, referred to in the Haggadah, was a renowned teacher and scholar, someone whose somewhat liberal ideas certainly would have influenced Jesus and his followers. Hillel's grandson, Rabbi Gamaliel, also mentioned in the Seder service, was Saint Paul's teacher, something Paul advertised to prove his credibility as a good Jew. In the Acts of the Apostles we hear him tell a crowd in Jerusalem, "As a pupil of Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in every part of our ancestral law." And for Paul the passover tradition of cleaning leavening agents out of the house provides a repeated metaphor. He tells the Corinthians to "Get rid of the old leaven and then you will be a new batch of unleavened dough. Indeed you already are, because Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed. So we who observe the festival must not use the old leaven, the leaven of depravity and wickedness, but only the unleavened bread, which is sincerity and truth." The idea of cleaning out the "leaven" of sin before the redemptive feast finds its way into many cultures. The Greeks do their "spring cleaning" on the first Monday of Lent, called Kathara Deftera. The children go fly kites while the women scrub the houses and the men whitewash them in preparation for Easter. It takes a little longer—the forty days of Lent—for soul scrubbing.

Living in Greece, an ancient country so close to the Holy Land, constantly reminded us how tightly the Jewish and Christian traditions were intertwined. In fact, the Greek word Pascha means both Passover and Easter, and it's the most important time of the year in the Orthodox Church. One year we took the children to the Easter midnight liturgy at Saint Sophia, our local church. The entire place was pitch black until a priest lit a single candle and announced, "Christos anesti," "Christ is risen." Gradually, the flame was passed from hand to hand, filling the old stone structure with eerie light. Then we walked home, still carrying our burning candles, and followed the custom of making a sooty cross above our front door. It's clearly a ritual taken directly from the Exodus story, when Jews in Egypt marked their doorways with the blood of the lamb to alert God to "pass over" their houses as he carried out the most terrible of the Ten Plagues, the slaying of the firstborn.

It was on Passover that the early church celebrated the redemption from sin that we now call Easter. It wasn't until the fourth century that the feast was moved to the first Sunday after the full moon after the vernal (sometimes called paschal) equinox. Since different traditions use different calendars, the Western and Eastern Christian churches often observe Easter on different dates. But the symbolism of going from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, from death to life remains consistent. Look at the beautiful opening words of the Anglican Easter vigil: "On this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus Christ passed over from death to life, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer. For this is the Passover of the Lord, in which through word and sacrament we share in his victory over death."

By saying all of this I don't want you to think that I'm in any way trying to "Christianize" the Seder. Not at all. Even when Seders take place in churches, Catholic bishops discourage any attempt to "baptize" passover, advising, "When Christians celebrate this sacred feast among themselves, the rites of the Haggadah for the Seder should be respected in all their integrity. The Seder . . . should be celebrated in a dignified manner and with sensitivity to those to whom the Seder truly belongs." And the Seder belongs to the Jewish people. I am just grateful that I am able to share in this night that is truly different from all others.

Of course my sharing in the feast also means my cooking it. And I think the thought of cooking the Passover meal is as intimidating as the recitation of the service to someone who has never done it. That wasn't as true for me as it might be for others because I had no hesitation about cooking the Seder dinner my own way. To Steve and the kids he grew up with "Jewish cooking" meant brisket and boiled chicken and delicatessen and matzo balls and gefilte fish and chopped liver. And some combination of those dishes had been part of whatever Passover meals he had attended. But to me that seemed crazy. That wasn't "Jewish" cooking (with the exception of the matzo), it was eastern European cooking, and the first Passover—thankfully, from my point of view—did not take place in eastern Europe. It took place in Egypt. And we know exactly what the main course was: lamb. Phew. I knew how to cook lamb. And from there I went on to other foods that would have been around in Egypt in the spring—eggplant, zucchini, maybe even tomatoes and okra—all much easier for me than kugel and tsimmes. Since Steve was not raised as an observant Jew, we do not follow the custom of cleansing our house of leaven and we don't have special china for Passover. Steve also doesn't feel the need to ask men to wear yarmulkes or skullcaps at our Seders. And though we don't regularly keep kosher, for this one night a year I am mindful of kosher rules about meat and milk and shellfish, which for a New Orleans cook isn't easy. When I first started serving my Passover meals and insisting that I was simply taking my menu from the book of Exodus, I got a good deal of ribbing from Steve and some of our friends about my shiksa Seder. Then, happily, the New York Times published a piece about Sephardic Passover recipes, which looked like replicas (or instructions) for mine. The only thing on our dinner plate that is still from the European branch of the family is the haroset, made with apples, nuts, cinnamon, and wine (thank heaven for the food processor!) instead of the North African dried apricots, dates or raisins, and nuts. There's only so much a shiksa can insist on. And on the hors d'oeuvres table, where I put out such Middle Eastern dishes as hummus and eggplant salad with the matzo, I do include some storebought gefilte fish and I make some chopped liver just to keep the sentimental Jews in the crowd happy.

The meal has evolved over the years as the guest list has grown. The former children at our Seders are now parents, I'm happy to say, but the burgeoning families long ago outgrew the dining room. And it's such a special night, with such a fundamental connection to Judaism, that everyone wants to keep coming year after year, which makes the celebration even more meaningful, especially to me. On other holidays with big crowds—Hanukkah and Christmas—I set up tables all over the house. But you can't do that for Passover, when everyone needs to be in the same room to participate in the service. At first we added a table to the end of the dinner table and angled it out into the hallway in an L shape. But soon that also became too small. So now we empty the glassed-in porch of all the furniture and set up rented rectangular tables. I keep saying that it looks like a VFW hall, but Steve graciously insists it really doesn't—that the warmth we intend comes through, despite the somewhat institutional looking rows of tables. Moving all that furniture and finding a place for it can be challenging, but somehow we manage to pile pieces on top of each other and cram them into the basement. For several years I insisted that we could fit only thirty-six on the porch, and the children were exiled to another room—much to their delight. But I've decided that we can squeeze in (and I do mean squeeze) a couple of more at each table, so I've gone to forty-four. Some years that's more than enough places, if families are out of town for spring break or if some flu is raging through the elementary schools; other years, when friends bring family members or all our family shows up, it means setting up a separate kids' table in an adjoining room. I still serve what's essentially a Middle Eastern meal (and as we go along I'll include a few recipes), though I long ago jettisoned the Greek egg-lemon, or avgolemono, soup, which was an annual favorite. It's just too hard to have soup for that many people and then clear plates and serve a main course, but I highly recommend it to a smaller group. I now have hired waiters to help with the dinner service and cleaning up, but that wasn't always the case. When we were young, there was no way we could afford such luxuries, and it took a lot of goodwill from our guests to get it all done. The main thing to keep in mind about the menu: Don't worry about it. This is a spring celebration, just go with that thought and you'll be fine. You can be sure that Jews over the centuries and around the world have served just about anything they had available.

Don't worry about any of it. This might be our Haggadah but it's your Passover—a night different from all others, filled with joy. This year in your house!

Check out other books from the "GMA" Library.

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