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A New Interfaith Haggadah

April 13, 2011 By:
Laura Goldman
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Last year, President Barack Obama and the First Family marked the beginning of Passover with a seder with friends and staff in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

When journalist Cokie Roberts, a devout Catholic, married Steve Roberts, whose secular family was fiercely protective of its cultural Jewish identity, they both agreed to respect and observe each other's religious and family traditions.

It's now been 40 years that they have been celebrating seders, including what Roberts termed a cheesecake version in Greece and one with an "Egyptian guest who did not appreciate the story."

This year, they'll be hosting more than 40 guests at their Washington home, with their 9-year old twin grandsons asking the Four Questions for the first time.

They'll also be using their recently released Haggadah, what Roberts describes as an updated and formalized version of the wine- stained Haggadah that she first typed on her old Smith Corona more than 40 years ago.

Our Haggadah Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families provides a guide for interfaith families contemplating their first seder and a refresher course for Jews that have organized many.

From A for Afikomen to Y for yeast, the Roberts tell the story of Passover in a delightful way but also discuss the practical details of holding a successful seder, replete with recipes, directions for making a seder plate, websites for Passover items and methods for teaching the Passover story to children.

During a recent visit to Philadelphia, Roberts, a senior news analyst for NPR and a political commentator for ABC news, talked about why she and her husband, a journalism professor at George Washington University, pursued this project.

"With more than 3,000 Haggadahs in print, people may be wondering about the need for another one," Roberts said. "We were asked to write a Haggadah specifically for interfaith couples by Carolyn Hessel, the head of the Jewish Book Council."

Still remembering the rejection from her Jewish in-laws more than 40 years ago, Roberts believes that organized Judaism needs to do more outreach to these interfaith families.

The couple marrying outside the religion is not the only one affected. "The Jewish parents of the interfaith couple, who have paid into the synagogue building fund for years, feel excluded from their religion when they discover that their rabbi refuses to marry their child," she said.

At the same time, she acknowledged the challenges of an interfaith marriage. "When my son Lee was five, he opened the door for Elijah, expecting him to come. When Elijah didn't, he asked, 'If both my parents were Jewish would Elijah have come?' "

Roberts, whose father once served as a House Majority Leader and whose mother was Bill Clinton's ambassador to the Vatican, emphasized that she was not attempting to "Christianize" the seder.

"The seder is a Jewish ceremony. Jews have organized seders for thousands of years, often at great peril to themselves," she said.

"The story of Passover, which is essentially the story of freedom, is a universal and enduring one." She said her husband jokes that "we should thank our press agent Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt. This February, the phrase, 'Let my people go' was once again heard in Egypt."

The Roberts' Haggadah expands on the theme of freedom by including impassioned writings from well-known freedom fighters, including Nelson Mandela, Sitting Bull and Cesar Chavez.

She acknowledged that their Haggadah is not strictly halachic and that parts of the Passover story are abbreviated. "We do not want a four-hour seder," she said. "Everyone gets hungry."

The Roberts' Haggadah also does not end with the traditional "Next year in Jerusalem."

"It is not what we do," she said. "We will not be in Jerusalem next year. We are Americans and will be celebrating Passover next year in our home."

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