Four Questions: A Passover Story
Alexandra Brown did not marry a Jewish man, but his name was David and that was close enough. Here, the writer reflects on how her husband fell in love with the Seder ritual, and how food and togetherness grounds her interfaith family.
- Written By
- Alexandra Brown
The Four Questions are essential to Passover. Asked by the youngest child, they guide the Seder dinner, unpacking the rituals and traditions that have been celebrated for thousands of years to honor the story of Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt. So in the honor of this holiday, let me tell you a more personal Passover story - one about my family and how an annual feast brought new traditions to my interfaith relationship - through “four questions” of my own.
Why is this relationship different than all other relationships?
“Well, his name is David. That’s as good as being Jewish,” my grandmother proclaimed. I was on the phone with her, telling her about my new relationship and how I felt like my boyfriend, David, was the one. While marrying someone Jewish in my family was more like the icing on the proverbial cake, it still was cause for excitement when someone bordered on Jewish territory, whether through a name or geographical familiarity with the culture. My now-husband David had both the name and the region, having grown up in Pittsburgh among many a Jew. Plus, his sister had lived in Brooklyn for 20 years, and his family always ate bagels and lox on Christmas morning. In my Jewish New York grandmother’s book, he was as good as in.
Even early on, threads of Jewish influences started to weave their way into our relationship. A mere four months after David and I met, we quit our jobs to travel the world together for a year. We made the decision to do so on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, commemorating the moment with a traditional meal and the prerequisite apples and honey indicative of the holiday’s flavors. David liked the idea of a different “new year” to mark a turning point in our lives together, representing the start of a great adventure that would define how we connected, related and communicated in the years to come.
Why do we (suddenly) do all these traditions?
Personally, marrying someone Jewish wasn’t high on my list. Even though both of my parents are Jewish, my brother and I never attended Hebrew school, didn’t have bar or bat mitzvahs and were enrolled in a Presbyterian school, so our exposure to other Jews growing up was slim to none. It’s no surprise that neither of us married Jews, yet what did surprise me was my sudden desire to do more Jewish things when I got married. And then even more so when we had children.
David is non-religious himself, a cultural Catholic at most, (a plate of strong moral compass with a heavy side of guilt, hold the dogma), so our “cashew” relationship worked out great for us. He got to be introduced to regularly celebrating new, and more importantly food-focused, holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Passover, while I got to have the month-long Christmas festivities of my dreams. Understandably though, he had a healthy dose of skepticism as my Jewish intrigue increased with the burgeoning size of my belly while pregnant with our first child.
“Do you want me to convert?” he once asked. “Do you want to convert?” I coyly answered. Let’s just say he didn’t look pleased.
But David is nothing if not a truly good man, so he patiently let more and more Jewish tradition creep into the scope of our marriage until one April several years ago, when he was put in charge of the showstopper - the Passover brisket.
Why on this night do we eat brisket?
As previously mentioned, my husband is a food-motivated individual. When we travel, one of his top priorities is sampling the regional cuisine and immersing himself in the flavors of the culture. So whenever a major holiday rolls around, and we’re celebrating, his first question is always about the menu. Ruminating on main courses, a cornucopia of appetizers and sides and potential sweet finishes is one of David’s favorite pastimes. His eyes light up at the mere mention of a wine pairing. So when I suggested we start hosting a Passover Seder as one of our first traditions as a married couple, David was enthusiastically on board. And the excitement only mounted when he learned brisket was most frequently served as the main course. While he loves food, he absolutely loves meat.
But David’s excitement was soon usurped by trepidation. We were ambitious for our first Seder, inviting 17 people to squeeze into our 650-square-foot three-floor walk-up. The format was a mix of hosting and potluck - we were in charge of the matzo ball soup, main course and wine while everyone else was bringing sides, sweets and, well, more wine. David had put himself in charge of the brisket, and as our “yes” RSVPs grew, so did his concern that the brisket wouldn’t turn out well. He had never cooked such a large piece of meat before (11 pounds!) and at such a low temperature (275 degrees!) for such a long time (7 hours!).
As the day approached, David made a plan. He consulted my brother, a professional chef, on the technique, and had a heart-to-heart with our local butcher about how to properly treat this traditionally very lean cut. He brought home the largest piece of brisket I have ever seen and lovingly prepared it for its grand moment. The entire cooking process went smoothly, and the brisket looked absolutely beautiful all carved up on the serving platter, yet it wasn’t until the appreciative mmmm’s of enjoyment hummed around the dinner table that David fully exhaled for the first time in a week. The brisket was a hit.
After the fun and flavor of our first festive Seder dinner, David began to feel more ownership over this Jewish tradition. He and I talked about how it was a lovely way to uphold some of the cultural elements of my upbringing while having it feel comfortable for him. We continued to hold Seders every year, with the food focus of the holiday clearly holding its appeal for David, and we even began to host weekly Shabbat dinners, with an open invitation to our friends to bring a bottle of wine, grab a seat at the table and enjoy a beautiful meal by candlelight. Ultimately, it was the warm cadence of ritual that won David over.
Why are some people Jewish and some people not?
During storytime the other night, our oldest daughter Emma and I were reading a book about Passover when she stopped me with a question. “Is everyone Jewish?” she asked. I explained that no, not everyone is Jewish. “What about you and Daddy and Baby T?” she asked.
While the answer for me and David is straightforward, it’s less so for our two daughters. According to Jewish lineage traditions, both our girls are Jewish since I, the mother, am Jewish, but they’ll be raised knowing they have other bloodlines flowing through their veins and other traditions that will be part of their upbringing. And the upside of celebrating both Chanukah and Christmas will not be lost on them.
Brisket and seders haven’t offered answers to all the questions that have, and will, come up for our little family, but they have given us a reason to come together with friends and family each spring to celebrate togetherness and hope. While our Seder tables are smaller this year and last, we are looking forward to more 11-pound briskets in the future.