Jewish World Review April 15, 2003/ 13 Nissan 5763

Open door policy

By Gail Snyder

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Several years ago, Philadelphia Inquirer family columnist Lucia Herndon found her voice mail at the paper overwhelmed with responses to a column she wrote.

It was about Passover.

Herndon, an Episcopalian, had observed Jewish friends and coworkers talking about the upcoming holiday with great anticipation.

Listening to their excitement over children coming home from college for the holiday and family members traveling great distances conjured up warm family images in her mind. It sounded like good material for a column.

Herndon's musings on the joys of the holiday ran the Wednesday before Passover.

At 6 a.m. she was awakened by a telephone call and a voice asking if she wrote a column for The Inquirer. Would she like to come to the caller's house for a Passover seder?

When Herndon arrived at her office the person in charge of the Inquirer's telephone system came running up to her to ask what she had done to fill up her voice mail box. Calls meant for her were ending up elsewhere in the building because they had nowhere else to go. Then the columnist checked her e-mail, where she found about 95 invitations from Jews inviting her to seder dinners.

Between the voice mails and the emails she received about 300 invitations, most encouraging her to bring her husband and children, too.

"It was fairly stunning. I was amazed," she says.

Herndon, who had agreed to the first caller's request, decided the sensible thing would be to attend one more seder and decline the rest.

As she drove to the first seder in Melrose Park at dusk on a cold, rainy evening, Herndon had some brief misgivings. She was unsure of the directions and uncertain what the strangers would be like who were welcoming her to their house. When she pulled up in front of the house, however, the presence of a man standing in the doorway reassured Herndon she was wanted.

"People were waiting for me," she says. "Here I am and it's cold and they've flung wide their door and ushered me in."

The Melrose Park family had a son in college and a daughter in middle school who still enjoyed searching for the Afikomen. The husband's mother attended as well as an uncle and Herndon remembers feeling very much at home with her adopted family for the night. "It was very heimish," she says.

For the second night of Passover, Herndon found herself in Lafayette Hill at the home of a woman whose mother had recently died.

Herndon sensed the family had hoped that having another person at the seder might take the edge off their loss. A special part of the evening for Herndon was tasting the same chicken soup recipe the woman's mother had made every year for the seder.

As a keepsake, one of the families gave the columnist a copy of the Hagaddah to keep, which she still has.

"Even if I'm not going anywhere I can remember the service, the Four Questions and the different disasters that were visited upon the Egyptians.

"I just felt I learned a lot. I felt welcomed into strangers' homes. And I got a very nice recipe for matzo ball soup," Herndon says.

The practice of inviting non-Jews to Passover seders is one shared by Patti and Alvin First of Rydal, Pa. The couple often invite as many as 30 guests to sit at four seder tables that stretch into their living room. They make sure to invite gentiles.

One of them is Patti's friend who grew up in South Philadelphia, where her mother picked up a smattering of Yiddish from her neighbors. When the friend expressed curiosity about what occurs at a seder, Patti was quick to invite her.

The woman and her boyfriend have been joining the Firsts for seders for three years.

Another frequent guest, Andrea, a Philadelphia school teacher like Patti, celebrates all the Jewish holidays with the Firsts even though she was raised Catholic. When Andrea's father died, she asked the Firsts if she could bring her mother to the seder.

Last year the Firsts watched in amazement as Andrea began explaining the intricacies of the seder to her mother like someone born into the faith.

"We got such a kick out of it," Patti says.

African American brothers Travis and Osee Edwards also attend. Travis, now in his early teens, was an elementary school student of Patti's. Even then his older brother Osee had been expressing an interest in Judaism, once telling Travis to wish his teacher "Shabbat Shalom."

The Firsts believe sharing the holiday with non-Jews helps break down barriers.

Patti says, "When you share the customs and traditions you don't have as much hatred. People understand more."

Mary-Ellen Ciali of Hackensack, N.J., has been attending seders for about 20 years through her friendship with Gayle Karukin. In recent years, Ciali and Karukin have been traveling to Doylestown to attend the seders given by Karukin's sister, Mindy Goss.

Ciali, a middle school guidance counselor who was raised Catholic, enjoys the rituals that accompany the seder. She says, "I'm a ritual person and I think people celebrate their spirituality in different ways. For me, spirituality comes alive in ritual. I like the ritual of setting the extra place and of Elijah coming to the door. All of that ritual feeds my spirituality.

"As a Christian, I believe in the same scriptures that the Jewish religion holds sacred too. I'm familiar with the scriptures but not the (Hebrew) language."

While Ciali was impressed by seder ritual, Beth Letts of Chalfont, Pa., was captivated by the order of the seder she attended at her neighbor's house.

"I know that seder means 'order'. It impressed me having different parts of the scripture being read through each part of the meal and how the father or grandfather ran the show and gave parts to the kids to read. It was very much passing on the tradition to the younger kids and to the family.

"Being from a very liberal Christian background I thought it was a wonderful thing to have such structure and traditions."

Patricia Macko of the Northeast has attended two seders, one at a friend's home and the other at a synagogue in Delaware. At the time Macko, a Catholic, had been deeply involved with a Jewish man, who has since passed away.

Macko says religion was never an issue for the couple and she liked the idea that Judaism encouraged questioning and learning.

"In the Catholic Church, growing up years ago, we didn't read the Bible," Macko says. "We used catechisms and were told what to do. Everything was on faith. In the seder there was an explanation for everything. ...

"I got into the symbolism. I just thought it was fascinating. Believe it or not, even though there was a lot of suffering (in the seder story) there was something positive I felt in the group," she says.

Gail Snyder hosts seder dinners in Chalfont, Pa. One of her favorite seders occurred when her young children's non-Jewish friends came and everyone sat on pillows on the living room floor. Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Gail Snyder. A version of this first appeared in the Jewish Exponent