(April 7, 2014 / JNS) That first Passover was a tough one.
I had been dating a Jewish man for the first time in my life and he invited me to celebrate Passover with a few dozen friends.
He didn’t warn me about the four cups of wine. (I don’t drink.)
He didn’t tell me about the meat. (I’m a vegetarian.)
He didn’t give me any clues about what to wear. (I’m fashion impaired.)
So I showed up wearing a sporty red, white and blue dress that was probably a few inches too short and a few shades too red. What was I thinking? That it was the 4th of July?
I would have stood out anyway. The name Regina is like a brand that you’re Catholic. I was clueless about Jewish traditions and had never heard of Jewish geography since it doesn’t extend too deeply into counties Clare and Mayo where my dad’s parents came from in Ireland.
I gave up on blending in at the seder the minute I walked in the door. Before my boyfriend could introduce me, the host shouted with glee from across the room, “A goy!” then rushed over to welcome me into his home. That was the first time I met philanthropist Lee Seidman, whose joy for all things Jewish became contagious and got me hooked for life.
That Passover night I became Jew “ish.”
As a Catholic growing up in a small town, I was rarely exposed to anyone Jewish. The only thing my parents said about Jews is that they were still waiting for the Messiah, as if they had missed some spiritual bus the rest of us had climbed on.
In Catholic school when we collectively played the part of the Jewish crowd on Good Friday chanting, “Crucify him!” we didn’t know it was anti-Semitic. We believed God chose for Jesus to die on a cross for the salvation of mankind. Anyone else involved was like an extra that got a small speaking part in that Passion play.
My parents never said anything negative about anyone Jewish, but they didn’t teach us anything about Jews or Judaism and all the rich rituals and traditions and endless holidays that seem to occur every third day of the year.
Most Gentiles I know (yes, I’ve adopted that word over the years) are clueless about anything Jewish except for Seinfeld reruns and Sondheim lyrics. In one newsroom where I worked, the café attempted to recognize Passover one spring. Next to the freshly baked bread they posted a sign that read: Passover bread.
So I stumbled through my first seder, but it didn’t matter, because I soon felt like family. As soon as they started the service, my heart relaxed. I knew the story from Exodus about how Moses led the people from the bondage to freedom. This was my life story, too. This was my past, too.
Exodus. Deuteronomy. Isaiah. The Paschal lamb. The breaking of the bread. It was all familiar, except for the matzo, charoset and gefilte fish, which doesn’t even resemble a fish.
Passover taught me to re-view the past, to see it all through the eyes of gratitude, framed by that powerful word Dayenu. It would have been enough for us.
If God had only brought us out of Egypt, it would have been enough.
If God had just parted the sea for us, it would have been enough.
If God had merely fed us manna in the desert, it would have been enough.
But God kept—and keeps—on giving.
Passover is the story of how much we are loved.
As I listened to the history of the Jews, I heard my own history in a new light. If God had only given me my daughter, it would have been enough. If God had just bestowed on me good health, it would have been enough. If God had merely given me any one of the endless gifts in my life, it would have been enough.
I ended up marrying the boyfriend who took me to my first Passover. God ended up giving me a Jewish husband, who came with two wonderful sons, three amazing siblings and more Jewish friends than I can count.
That first Passover pulled me into a new world, one that now feels like home.
Regina Brett is a columnist for the Cleveland Jewish News (where this article first appeared) and a Pulitzer Prize finalist.