The Seder

The Seder

 

Art The SederI rang the doorbell of my ex-husband Larry’s house, a jar of gefilte fish in one hand, boxed coconut cake in the other. To date, I’d been to the house on Thunder Lake only to drop off the kids. But today I was here with my husband, Eric, and two stepchildren, Luke and Jamie, for Seder dinner.

Given the circumstances, this was miraculous: I’d last seen Larry three weeks ago at the trial. Six years after our divorce was final we’d gone back to court over the religious upbringing of our three young children, Sophia, Olivia, and Johnny. I’m Catholic; Larry is Jewish.

Eric, Luke, Jamie, and I stood on the front steps. I did not want to ring the bell again. “Cool house,” Luke, 13, said, looking heavenward to where the white columns we stood between might end.

“We could leave,” I said.

“Just breathe, honey,” Eric said.

“Tell me again why I’m here?”

“For the children,” he said, taking the jar of gefilte fish and squeezing my hand.

Eric had been here for me each odd step of the journey. He’d been at the first meeting with the rabbi more than a year ago, where I sobbed, explaining I was the primary caretaker of my baptized children, and  could not raise my children Jewish.

Sophia answered the door, welcoming me as a guest in her other home. The divorce agreement said nothing about religion, so Larry and I tried to figure out Sophia’s faith in real time. Each decision we made would mark her, and be the precedent for her sister Olivia and brother Johnny. But looking at Sophia, I knew Larry and I had not damaged her permanently yet. She stood at ease in the foyer. She’d grown into a beautiful girl with her father’s dark eyes and my mother’s wide-lipped smile, her mane of black hair a gift from some former generation.

Now in a house where my children lived when they were not with me, images of their life with their father came into view, the backpacks on each hook, three jackets hung in the closet, a drawing with the words “I love my Daddy” in a frame on an end table.

I remembered a five-year-old Sophia in the tub with her little sister just after the divorce. The girls played in the bath bubbles, splashing suds onto their chins Santa-style, and spun the rubber ducks on the surface of the water, like dreidels, singing in Hebrew. That was how I first found out that Larry had been taking the children to Temple on his weekends. He had never taken the children to Temple in the eight years we were married.

I had fallen in love with Larry at a Seder at his house when we were dating. I’d grown up in a cloistered Irish-Italian family, a plaid-uniformed Catholic schoolgirl. I had never been to a Seder and at that one I met a Buddhist and a Muslim. As the conversation developed into a theological discussion, my mind stretched past Sister Marianne McCarthy into the realm of rabbinical texts, the Tripitaka, and the Quran. My world cracked open over a candlelit table with plates of beef brisket and roast turnips. My then husband-to-be was worldly, 15 years older than I, and seemed to believe in all religions, subscribing to none.

We walked to the main room. “I come bearing gifts,” I blurted, handing Larry the gefilte fish and coconut cake. Several children raced through the house and a few other couples greeted us. I knew one woman from the gym.

“It’s so nice how you all get along,” she said, nodding toward Larry, then Eric. “So nice how you’re all here,” she added, her words echoing beneath the cathedral ceiling.

All of us getting here was a long story. One that began with a two-sentence e-mail I received 18 months earlier stating that Sophia was enrolled in Hebrew school and her bat mitzvah was set for June 12.

My ex-husband’s e-mail, in its brevity, seemed a decision to change the course of my children’s lives without discussion. It set off a series of sparks that turned into blue-flamed anger, then action; two motions filed within two weeks, followed by a trial.

In court I sat on the bench with my lawyer, waiting for our case to be called. I shuffled papers, my hands shaking, the children’s baptismal certificates fluttering to the floor. Larry sat several rows in front of me, with a string of witnesses shoulder-to-shoulder.

Larry’s lawyer called me to the stand. I swore to tell the truth and nothing but  the truth. I considered another oath I’d made before Larry, to love him in sickness and in health all the days of our lives.

The lawyer fired off questions.

“Do you know how long the children have been attending Temple?” he asked. “Have you ever taken any legal action up until now?”

I hated him, catching me on a hook like that. No, I had not taken legal action, but I had built a case with Larry outside of the court. We’d tried to talk, but the words crisscrossed before ever being heard. The talking turned into curt e-mail exchanges, what we each thought the other’s intent was for the religion of the children when they were born. I believed we’d agreed the children would be raised Catholic and Jewish. My problem at this juncture really boiled down to a bat mitzvah. A ceremony that would confirm my daughter in the Jewish faith, somehow separating her from me.

“Are the children presently enrolled in any other religious instruction?” the lawyer continued, tension in his voice. I thought back to my enrolling Sophia in religion classes after school when we first moved, and how I pulled her out three weeks later. The change in homes and schools was stress enough for both of us. And I thought the allure of taking three kids to Temple would wear off for Larry.

Larry’s lawyer repeated the question. “Are the children enrolled in any other religious instruction?”

I began to explain the three-week enrollment.

“Answer yes or no,” the judge said.

“No,” I said.

“When was the last time you went to church?” the lawyer asked. “Christmas?”

Objection.

Sophia’s Hebrew school teacher came to the stand next. I had never seen this woman before. She addressed me from the stand: “Did I know that Sophia already knew her Torah portion?” she asked. I did not know. That was the problem. This  all  had happened in secret, on the one day a week the children spent with their father. The lawyer finished the show with a former next-door neighbor, who confirmed that, yes, he and his wife had attended seders in the marital home.

Court was adjourned until a date two weeks from that day. Two more weeks. It would be unbearable.

My lawyer walked me to my car. I locked myself in, tears dripping from my eyes onto the leather seat. My mind reeled back to my childhood, me in that white dress at my First Holy Communion. I had memorized the Our Father and the Hail Mary. I’d taken the Body of Christ for the first time and had gotten stomach sick. Years later I would say my Hail Marys in succession after confession with Father Amato, where I begged forgiveness for my 16-year-old sins.

Though I’d grown up with God, that confession would be my last in a formal setting. Once I went off to college and was away from parents who did not know if I went to church or not, I opted to not attend. By the time I met Larry after college, my faith was packaged into silent prayers at night, the ongoing giving of thanks in a private setting. I married Larry within 12 months of meeting him.  We divorced eight years later, to the day.

Larry and I both lost so much in the divorce. But afterward, I found Eric, and I wondered now, for the first time, if Larry had found religion. Perhaps Larry was not just pushing his Judaism to control me, but had come to believe in it. While I reestablished my roots in an expanding family, with Eric and my children and stepchildren, Larry may have found the roots of his faith.

Darkness fell, and all the other parked cars had gone. I tapped out the number of years Larry had been taking the children to Temple and Hebrew school. I tapped seven times on the steering wheel. It had been seven years.

I put the key in the ignition, wondering for the first time if I should let Larry win this one. I told myself that whether or not the children had mitzvahs, they would choose for themselves one day. Unlike in my house where Christianity had been a given, never questioned, my children would have to think things through as they grew older. Even with a bat mitzvah, Sophia would have to question the two faiths that were rolled up inside of her.

In the morning I called my lawyer. “Settle,” I said.

Later that week, after my ex-husband heard of the settlement, I received an e-mail invitation to seder at his house. “Please bring Eric and Luke and Jamie,” he wrote. I thought about the invitation for more than a week and decided it would be best for the children if Larry and I at last appeared to be on the same page.

I took in the scene before me now: Sophia pulling out the Scrabble game, Olivia trying to hide the afikomen while everyone watched. I went to the kitchen to pour a glass of wine and found myself alone with Larry.

“It’s a nice party,” I said.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said, taking theseder plate from the refrigerator, the boiled egg rolling off onto the tile floor.

“Need help?” I asked, picking the shank bone off the counter.

“Remember that seder when you tried to bake shehakol?” he said. In a minute I was back in another kitchen, separating 13 egg whites, completely baffled at how to make a dessert without flour.

“I remember,” I said, the moment between us tacked to the corkboard, held still for us to observe. We were joined in a singular memory, from a time when we would have done anything for each other.

Johnny came into the kitchen, the moment broken.

“Come see my room, Mom,” Johnny said, taking my hand. I looked at Larry as if to ask if it was okay for me to go upstairs. He nodded, and Johnny scooted me away taking the steps up to his room two at a time. “Here’s my bed,” he said, a six-year-old docent. The room was blue, a framed Derek Jeter jersey hung above the headboard. Autographed baseballs were lined up in individual display cases on the dresser. Johnny hopped on his bed, and I sat next to him.

“Can we have a sleepover tonight, Mom?” he said.

“Not tonight, Champ,” I said.

After the tour, Johnny and I went back downstairs for dinner. My children, stepchildren, ex-husband, and husband sat down to matzo ball soup in steamy porcelain bowls; matzo ball soup had always been a favorite of mine, the item I craved through each of my pregnancies. I had not had it in years. The smell of broth and parsley sifted through me, the lilies pushed their necks up out from the lips of the vase.

Johnny, the youngest at the table, started the seder with the first of the four questions.

Ma nishtana ha-laila ha-zeh mi-kol ha-lelot?

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

Author’s Note: Eric and I never attended another seder at my ex-husband’s house, but I will always be proud of making the effort that one time.

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Beltane Flowers

Beltane Flowers

Beltane FlowersBy Brit St. Claire

I didn’t know there would be so many flowers. Flowers line the tables, bubble from vases, and encircle handmade crowns in pearly explosions. Later, there will be a giant maypole studded with blossoms like jewels.

Beltane is an ancient Gaelic festival. It was my first pagan celebration. For several years I’d wanted to meet people in this alternative spiritual community. But I didn’t start making an effort until giving birth to my son eleven months ago. His birth awakened in me a spiritual restlessness that had been lingering in the periphery of my mind.

My search led me to the Craft and Wicca, which is a relatively new nature religion, reconstructed from old British-pagan witchcraft traditions. I’ve pursued these subjects from the comfortable silence of what’s known in the neo-pagan world as the “broom closet,” and I’ve become hopelessly intrigued. Hopelessly because, although society has come a long way from burning suspected witches in the town square, witchcraft in general is still mostly misunderstood and feared. I don’t know anyone else who shares my interest.

I’ve always prefaced my studies behind a wall of vague mainstream-religious skepticism. I’m unsure of how to discuss the extent of my spiritual wandering with Christian family members and reluctant to step into what I imagine could be blinding glares of judgment.

There’s also the matter of my son. The little being that inspired my search for spirituality is the one I worry about the most. I don’t know what I will share with him about my quest, how it led me to a group of witches. I can barely explain it to myself.

My husband Jim*—now an atheist—and I were raised with Christianity, which we have both left behind. We have to create our own roadmap of where and how to guide our son spiritually, and that process is evolving. We know we want to educate him about various world religions, to nurture a sense of God in nature, to teach compassion for others, and an appreciation for science. Ultimately we want him to choose his way for himself.

Stereotypes about Wicca are triggered by the vocabulary involved: witch, coven, magick, spells. These words conjure creepy Hollywood images of pointy black hats, bubbling cauldrons, and warts, or teenage misfits who turn to Satanism (which, to clarify, is a direct rebellion against Christianity and not related to Wicca).

The actual definitions and purposes of these terms are surprisingly simple. A spell can be described as a focused prayer with visualization and props, such as herbs and candles, which are thought to lend energy and focus intent. A pretty good definition of magick is the movement of energy directed by the will toward a goal. The idea is not to cultivate power over others—magick should never be used to control another person, but only over your own self. The concept of karma is a close relative.

Several Wiccan concepts are beliefs I hold firmly, beliefs I held before discovering they are also embraced by Wicca. Things I would teach my son anyway: find divinity within the self and nature; practice meditation for strength and balance; spirituality is individual, personal; don’t proselytize, but help others less fortunate anyway; examine your intentions; harm none; feel free to view a symbol like “God” or “Goddess” as just that: a representation of a creative life force energy we can’t possibly understand.

When I get past my own misconceptions, I find nothing to fear in these earth-based practices of spirituality. They are mystically compelling. They invite me to tune in to myself and my surroundings, as though the universe itself were tapping on my shoulder with a secret—if only I would listen.

That’s why I’ve come to Beltane tonight. I’m ready to listen, to find what’s right for me. I’ve pursued my interest in the Craft cautiously, one crumb at a time, like Hansel and Gretel finding their way home through the for- est. And so far, instead of leading me to an ugly, wart-nosed witch hungry for my flesh, it has led me here, to this local Wiccan coven’s celebration of spring fertility—Beltane—in a room bursting with flowers.

In spite of overcoming some doubt, my reservations still followed me here.

Everyone in the coven house bustles, chattering and laughing, but I hold back. I remind myself about the reassuring meeting I had with the high priestess and priest, who met me for coffee before I decided to attend tonight’s open Beltane ritual. They were delightfully normal, friendly, and thorough, answering my flood of questions with warmth and patience. But still, I wondered, what if my positive impression of the group were crushed? What if they do something bizarre? Maybe they’d sacrifice a chicken. Maybe the ritual would end with everyone getting naked. I was reassured—with amusement—this is not that kind of group.

I recall Jim’s joking, yet half-serious words of caution before I left him and our son home for the evening.

“Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” he’d said.

Snarky comments are usually a welcome part of our banter, but I flinched at this. I was somebody’s mother now; what business did I have gallivanting off to spend precious time with a group of witches?

I police the room for suspicious activity, but the atmosphere insists on festivity. The crowd is dressed with surprising diversity; some folks are bedecked in Renaissance-style costumes while others wear jeans and casual tops. Several elementary-age girls frolic around like spring fairies in white dresses and flowered headbands.

Watching them, intrigued, I think about my own childhood experience with Christian Lutheranism. Churches that were somehow at once stuffy and over air-conditioned; long, boring sermons; the tranquil yet somewhat ominous tones of the pastors which instilled both calm and fear in the parishioners; the focus on sin and redemption, forgiveness, and judgment, which so often led to an emotional and spiritual roller coaster from which I quietly disembarked so long ago. It had been years since I let go of my childhood religion, with its powerful concepts of hell and Satan. Still, those images and the fear they fostered are about as easy to shake off as head lice. And despite how far from Christianity I’ve gravitated, alarm sluices through me when I notice a man at Beltane wearing what appears to be a headband with horns.

Until, staring at this horned man, I remind myself that these horns symbolize the pagan god of the hunt, a positive image of strength and fertility, not the dark, better known Christian villain. In fact, there is no “devil” figure in Wiccan symbology.

While a small part of me continues to analyze the room, looking for some- thing objectionable enough for me to abandon all this nonsense, I will myself to relax. When I do, my hypersensitive mental radar registers nothing more negative than my own anxiety, picking up instead on an infectious sense of cheer and goodwill emanating from this group of people who happen to identify as witches. Maybe it’s simply difficult to keep worrying about rejection and hell- fire in the face of so many flowers.

When the crowd is called to order, several coven members welcome every- one and begin to speak about the evening. When my gaze lands on a familiar face, it takes a full minute to absorb. I blink in surprise as a memory snakes through my mind: a dinner at Whole Foods, one of my husband’s friends from law school—is that him?

Couldn’t be, I think. Must be some- one who looks like him. But when the man is introduced as one of tonight’s ritual leaders, the name is the same one I remember. Kevin*, attorney-at-law, friend of my husband’s, respectable and functional member of society, appears to be a witch.

Flabbergasted and delighted, I can hardly keep from leaping over the crowd to say hello. It’s not the right time; ritual is about to start.

We venture into the night, following a tea-light studded path, winding around a grove of trees to the ritual space. Flowers blanket the circle. A large sculpture of blossoms stands behind the altar, upon which a Goddess statue appears to have been caught dancing in a shower of petals. Sweet incense perfumes the humid air. I wouldn’t be surprised if a fairy landed on my shoulder.

The priestess and priest of the evening speak, representing the god and goddess, forces of nature and the seasons. They engage in a poetic, dramatic exchange: winter is checking out, summer is arriving, and now is a time of fertility, they explain.

I wonder what the kids in the group are thinking, and what their lives are like. Are they bored standing here in the circle, the way I used to be during sermons? Or do they enjoy the feel of the cool grass beneath their feet, the breeze gently brushing their cheeks, moonlight peeking over a cloud overhead? Do they tell their friends that their moms and dads are witches? And if they do, how often are they greeted with acceptance? How often with scorn? What about Halloween—do these kids go trick-or-treating along with celebrating Samhain, the ancient Gaelic ancestor- honoring harvest festival that most Neo- pagans recognize today?

And how many parents here practice this spirituality in private, quietly excluding their kids?

What would I do?

During the ritual, we are encouraged to think about goals we want to manifest this summer, and then we jump over a bonfire at the center of the circle in an old Beltane custom to invoke blessings and abundance. I hold back at first, worried about my jeans catching fire, but Kevin grabs my hand, and we jump together. I feel the fire’s heat on my feet and legs, then the cooler wind sweeping over my face and through my hair. As we sail over the yellow flames, it’s as though we are literally leaping into summer. I can’t help but laugh with exhilaration. Next we raise energy, clap- ping our hands and singing, faster and faster, finally lifting our hands overhead in release. It’s a strange, but satisfying activity.

In the silence that follows, under the dark sky and bright moon, I think about where I am in life and what I want to accomplish, enjoying this aspect of the ritual. I can’t deny a sense of detachment as well; the theatrical component makes me feel like I’ve been involved in some kind of interactive Medieval play rather than a genuine spiritual experience. Maybe group ritual isn’t for me. Or maybe fewer verbal theatrics, or getting to know the people here, would make a group experience like this more meaningful. I simply don’t know yet.

After the ritual we move to a field next to the circle space. While singing and performing a weaving dance, several couples wind long thick ribbons around a tall, flowered maypole the size of a tree trunk, as everyone sings— naked. Kidding. This really isn’t that kind of group.

A potluck feast is next, so everyone heads back to the house. Plates of food appear and cups of homemade mead are poured.

When I spot Kevin, I make my way through the crowd, wondering if he’ll recognize me. We only met that once at dinner, and I spent most of the meal walking around with the baby.

After we exchange pleasantries, Kevin says he did remember me: “When I saw you I was like, oh shit.”

We laugh, and I’m happy to know I’m not the only one paranoid about being found out. “If you don’t want me to tell Jim I saw you, I won’t,” I say, although I’m thinking Oh please let me tell him! My husband is supportive of my finding a spiritual practice that works for me and open to discussions about what I’m studying, but he’s still suspicious of the Craft. Learning that one of his own friends—someone he respects—is involved would be nothing short of a revelation.

“Oh, you can tell him. I generally try to keep all this on the down low at work, though.”

I nod knowingly and ask him if he’s out of the proverbial broom closet with family and friends. He tells me most of his friends know, but while his family might suspect, he hasn’t directly informed them, instead deciding it would be better for them to know and love him without worrying about the fate of his soul. I also learn that Kevin’s spouse isn’t pagan but attends rituals once in a while.

A young woman with a pixie cut, Lena, joins the conversation, and my curiosity is piqued when I learn she has a young child. Tall and slender, with short curly hair, Lena has calm green eyes and a long, graceful neck. She works as a research analyst. With a laugh, she waves away the idea of anyone judging her spiritual choices. I ask if her family and friends know, and she tells me that in fact they do. With a laugh, she says something like, “My mom thought I was crazy at first, but I think she’s starting to come around a little.”

During the conversation I also learn that Lena does bring her daughter to circle once in awhile, although her plan—like mine—is to let the child ultimately choose her own path.

I can’t help but notice that Lena and Kevin—both intelligent, friendly, self- assured, funny—embody the opposite of any negative witch or Wiccan stereotype I’ve encountered (think Fairuza Balk from The Craft). Their confidence is so inspiring that my sense of guilt and paranoia begins to fade.

When I head home to my husband and son, I feel much calmer than when I arrived. Although I don’t yet know whether Wicca by itself will define my spirituality, or if it will end up serving as a jigsaw piece in a larger, eclectic spiritual puzzle (I suspect the latter), this night marks a shift; it suddenly feels like much more of an option to pursue a mystical path while still being a good mother. Being in the presence of Lena and Kevin—people my husband and I would consider peers—has encouraged me to embrace my path, however it unfolds, trusting that when I become comfortable in the skin of my own spirituality I will know what details to share—or not share—with others. Possibilities blossom before me.

Double Take: Read another perspective on this topic: Believe It or Not

Author’s Note: I’ve been toiling with this piece for over two years now, both compelled and terrified to share it. Compelled to help expand the very concept of what’s okay to do and be as a mother (that we often impose on ourselves and others); terrified to reveal myself. But the deal was, send it out there and if it gets pub- lished, the time is right to be more open. So here I am, exhaling a long-held breath, ready.

About the Author: Brit St. Claire writes, raises a family, and remains fascinated by esoteric topics in Atlanta, Georgia. Her pieces have appeared in Sandiego Babies, Western New york Family and Wired magazine’s parenting blog Geek Mom. To learn more visit her website at www.britstclair.com.

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