April 4, 2013

Finding God, or Asking the Wrong Parent the Big Questions at the Worst Time

You can see how this might get complicated.
This most awkward church moment was thanks to Moses on Mount Sinai and the baby Jesus.


In the several weeks leading up to Passover, the girls and I discussed the upcoming holiday a lot. Not just because I *love* Passover, no, but because I had certain expectations of them.

I expected them to sing the Four Questions.

RH displaying the four questions
Now, if you're not Jewish, that probably made no sense to you. Allow me to elaborate. At the Passover seder, it is incumbent upon the youngest child (who is physically able) to ask four question- in Hebrew. I know, there are undoubtedly families that do the questions in English (we always follow our Hebrew questions with English versions), but the four questions have since time immemorial been set to song (as all Hebrew prayers) in order to make them nice and memorable. It's the nature of oral traditions.

And so, every time we watched, "It's Passover, Grover!" I insisted they pay extra attention to the four questions. I sang along with them. I coached them. I even got RH her own little four question book- mostly for the benefit of her big sisters.

The four questions are based on the overall question, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The next four questions are elaborations of that. "On all other nights, we eat bread- why do we eat matzo tonight?" "On all other nights, we eat any vegetables, why on this night do we eat bitter vegetables?" "On all other nights, we don't dip our herbs. Why do we dip them twice tonight?" "On all other nights, we eat sitting up, so why do we recline tonight?"

Remember, all of this is in Hebrew.

As they learned the four questions, they made adorable and absurd mistakes. Rather than, "Shebechol halelot anu ochleen..." she would sing, "Beautiful halelot a new oh clean..." It was adorable.

They got a little stage fright at the seder, but...

It was sweet and adorable- as is generally hoped and expected. I'm sure next year they'll be even better- RH still won't be old enough to take up the four question mantle.

There was only one hiccup in my preparations for Passover- Eater. In the kerfuffle of planning a seder, teaching my kids the four questions, helping them learn all ten plagues (Angel of Death- really, you are a giant bummer to three year olds), and preparing them for living on matzo for a week (because of course Passover lasts for a week)... I also had to make Easter arrangements.

That meant working with a dear friend of mine to put together a smallish, toddler friendly Easter egg hunt.

So the only thing that the girls heard from me about Easter was that we would go to their friend's house and find colorful eggs. They were beyond ecstatic.

...except they asked me, "What's Easter?" and I said, "I think your daddy should explain it to you."

Of course I did. Why on earth would M want me to explain Easter? I would no doubt do it without any sense of happiness or excitement. Because, as we all know, I'm Jewish. My relationship with Easter is strained at best. I don't believe that Jesus was the messiah, I don't believe that he rose from the dead, and I don't believe in any sort of divinity associated with him. Those are Christian beliefs, and I simply don't share them. So I told the girls, "Daddy will tell you about Easter," and promptly moved on.

The inside of University of Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel
Apparently, they never asked him. All they did was tell him how excited they were to collect Easter eggs.

The day before Easter, we had a lovely Easter Egg hunt (more on that later), and the girls seemed totally appeased. The news that they would have ANOTHER opportunity to wear their fancy Passover dresses was beyond belief. I started worrying that they had no clue what was going on, and that M's parents, who were in town for the weekend, might suddenly find it weighing upon them to teach their grandchildren about Jesus. But we kept busy- first the egg hunt, then the HUGE Easter dinner... it was excitement and fun until bed.

And so, on Easter morning, we got into our "princess clothes," and walked to church.

It's an incredible church. It's only a few blocks from home, and it is unfathomably gorgeous. It houses an incredible pipe organ, and one of the largest carillons in the world. There were performances by a stellar choir, an orchestra, the organ, and the carillon. It would be perfect.

And so, the girls bounced practically all the way to church. They colored happily on paper bags for a post-service Easter egg hunt, and they gaped open mouthed at the astounding colors streaming in through the enormous windows.

As I pointed out details of the stained glass, showed them all the pipes all around us (streaming beautiful music all the while), their eyes widened and their jaws dropped. But there was also some concern, some obvious confusion. RH sat on Grandma's lap, DD sat on Grandpa's lap, and SI sat between me and Grandpa. M was on the aisle, to give his leg the most space. I began to wish desperately that it was M sitting next to the kids. I had a feeling that something very awkward was about to happen.

RH is in awe of the church
And then, finally, as the chorus sang... it did. DD couldn't contain her confusion any longer. With her brows furrowed, she nervously called my name.

"Mommy? Are we slaves?"
"Oh no, we're not slaves. This is about a different story. This is about the Easter story, not the Passover story."

A pause. A slanted look at the enormous sanctuary. More furrowed brows.

"Are we in Egypt?"
"No, honey, we're in a church. This isn't Passover, it's Easter."
"It's not Passover?"
"Well, yes, it is Passover. But we're here for church for Easter," I said in the quietest voice I could muster.

A pause, waiting for the bomb to drop.

"Mommy? What's Easter?"

Crap. "Well, um, Easter is a different holiday."
"With Easter eggs?"
"Yes, but that's not why we're here. We're here because of the Easter story."
"What story?"
Crap crap crap crap crap... "Um, it's a holiday about Jesus."

Suddenly, I was in panic mode. Did I really want my in-laws to experience the horror of their granddaughters asking, in church, on Easter, "Who's Jesus?"

"Do you remember baby Jesus from Christmas?" Bingo.
"Well, the Easter story is that he grew up and died and then came back, and that's Easter."
The look of abject horror on DD's face was stunning.
"He DIED?"
"But then came back, and that's the story for Easter."
"Baby Jesus DIED????"
"He grew up, and then died, and then came back."
"Yes honey, but it's okay."
"Yes he died but then he came back and now it's Easter!" I hissed, desperate not to draw the attention of the rest of the church-goers.

She seemed satisfied for one glorious, fleeting moment.

This expression is the precursor to all unanswerable questions
"Why did baby Jesus die?"

Why, indeed. I knew what M would have liked me to say, what my in-laws would have liked me to say, which would have been something along the lines of, "So that we could all go to Heaven someday and be with him," but I just couldn't do it. Instead, I said, "Because that's what God wanted."

Got it. That's what God wanted. Everybody can be happy with that, right?

DD looked concerned, but pacified. As I began to relax again, enjoying the beautiful strains of Vivaldi echoing through the stunning room, I heard it again- that stage whisper.

"Mommy! Mommy!"
"Yes, pumpkin?"
"Is God like the bush on the mountain?"
"Yes, like the burning bush."
"Mommy? Where is God?"
Really? Now? "God is everywhere, honey."
"God is in Egypt?"
"Yes, and God is at home, and outside, and in the sky, and in the trees, and in you... God is everywhere all the time. God is here now."
"God is HERE?" She looked around as though she might catch a glimpse.
"Yes, but we can't see God. God's invisible."

She seemed utterly satisfied, and returned to coloring her paper bag.

The service continued beautifully. Some poetry, more Vivaldi, a spectacular soprano solo... and then the pastor took to the microphone to deliver the Easter sermon. She spoke with a clear, crisp British accent, and her voice was beautiful. It echoed gently through the room.

"Mommy! Mommy!"
"Yes, honey?"
"Is that God?!"

Grandpa stifled a snort of laughter, and I heard the parishioners behind us giggling.

"No, honey. That's not God."

And with an angelic smile, it was back to coloring again.

Too bad they don't outfit churches with rocks to crawl under.

Happy Easter from DD, RH, and SI


  1. I think you did the best you could given the situation. My husband and myself are not religious at all so I haven't had this exact experience. However, we do have religious family and I have had to answer this the who is God question from my now 5yr old. I must say it feels terribly strange to try and answer this question in front of religious people, with offending them. In my case, I just told her that God was a figure people prayed to and believe that he gave them life. It was the best the I had at the time, I certainly was not prepared for the question. If my husband and I happen to speak about it then we refer to God or other religious things as Bob, so I figured we had more time before this topic came up. Thankfully she accepted that and moved on.

  2. Wow I have never had to juggle two religions at once for the sake of my daughter, you must have some patience. The worst problem I have ever had is my atheist ex wanting us to baptise our daughter as a catholic because that's what religion his mum is. The hypocrisy was not lost on me. I've not had to answer any religious questions for my little girl yet, but trying to explain my own religion to a pair of kids who have one catholic and one orthodox parent was very interesting.

  3. Kudos to you, you did the best you can while tring to be senstive to the surroundings. Especially Passover/Easter! That must be tricky in a Jewish/Christian household. But I had to laugh when your daughter was floored that baby Jesus was dead. I know it may sound crazy but tt reminded me of when we are at a concert where the group was singing a tribute song to Michael Jackson. My son asked "why are they singing that sad song?" and I casually whispered, "They are saying goodbye to Michael Jackson."

    "Why?" he asked "They do that sometimes when people die." I answered.
    "Michael Jackson is DEAD??!!" He screamed. It never occured to me that he didn't understand what we were talking about when Jackson actually died. We had to leave the concert was crying so hard. I know it's a different situation, but we all have to deal with our kids immediate questions - no matter where we are! ALways enjoy your posts.

  4. I can't help but laugh. It's hard to answer those questions, even as a Christian. ;) I can't imagine handling that!

  5. At the mass of Christian burial for my husband's grandmother, the pastor held the host (a large communion wafer) up for the church to see. My youngest niece said, Momma momma- that's BIG money!. It was adorable and joyful, and I'm sure, tricky too.

    Love to you as you navigate these challenges.



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