Ten years after their interfaith confessional From This Day Forward, Cokie and Steve Roberts return to co-author Our Haggadah, a personalized version of the Passover prayer book. The journalistic power couple—she’s political commentator and news analyst, he’s a professor at George Washington University and a political analyst—get in the holiday spirit with straightforward advice and anecdotes geared toward couples of disparate religions.
Why did you decide to write this book? Seems an unusual subject.
Cokie Roberts: Is that because there are already 3,000 haggadahs out there?
Steve Roberts: In a general sense, [we] have counseled many young couples who are in interfaith relationships, and we have found a very strong desire on the part of [these] couples to reach back and connect to their tradition, but not knowing how, and being hesitant or confused. Our hope is that those couples will be able to take this book and find encouragement. If you can sum up the theme of this book in one phrase—“you can do it, be not afraid.” You can reach back and celebrate these traditions and do it in a way that respects both of your faiths.
I know you are both familiar with the four questions of Passover, so what makes your haggadah different from all others?
CR: The four questions are still the four questions. The ancient ceremony, the basic order, the Seder, is the same. It’s shorter than some, but...
SR: Longer, however, than the world’s shortest Seder, which is nine words: They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.
CR: The commentary is different. We’ve each written introductions out of our experience. And then we have proactive advice—how to set the table, recipes that are unbelievably simple that make it much easier to contemplate doing this…It’s in the tradition of a Jewish commentary, but with an interfaith bent.
SR: One of the things we tried to do is point out that the story of liberation—and of course, we did this before Tahrir Square [epicenter of the recent Egyptian revolution]. But here’s a story of a group demanding, “Let my people go” from a modern-day pharaoh—so it just reinforces the resonance and relevance of this story to almost any group demanding freedom. One of things we have done is provide alternative reading in the book [from] non-Jewish sources, from Nelson Mandela to Sitting Bull, on the subject of freedom. So people will understand that, while this is a very Jewish story and Jewish ritual, it also touches a much larger theme.
What do you think makes a Seder intimidating?
CR: Looking at pictures of a Passover table is intimidating. It has things on it that you don’t normally see…It has foods that can be different from food that you normally cook. But a lot of people are just intimidated about cooking, much less about cooking a ritual meal.
SR: One of things I tried to do in my essay is instruct and encourage people how to conduct a Seder. Even though I was raised Jewish, I had never attended a Seder as a child. I certainly didn’t inherit from my two very, almost anti-religious grandfathers any sense of this ritual or how to conduct it. So I think, “Oh, am I going to make a mistake? Am I gonna do it right?”…When, in truth, what we try to say is: “However you do it, this will help you do it. Also, relax. If you make a mistake, don’t worry about it. The real point is the spirit. The real point is the feeling. It’s not pronouncing every word right.” I think people need [to hear] that.
And by the third glass of wine, no one cares anyway.
CR: That’s exactly right. Keep in mind people have been performing this ritual for thousands of years across the world—sometimes in horrendous circumstances—and they didn’t have everything right. They just had the spirit. And that’s all that counts.
Do you think your book could supplant the more traditional haggadahs?
CR: That’s not the purpose. The purpose is to help people who are uncomfortable with traditional haggadahs.
SR: There’s a larger context here. We wrote a book 10 years ago about our mixed religious heritage, and one of the reasons it is still in print is because there is a growing yearning on the part of young people in these interfaith marriages [to reconnect] to their faith. We feel very strongly that organized Judaism has got to embrace these young couples and not drive them away. In that sense, this book is part of a much larger trend to help organized Judaism not reject these non-Jewish spouses but respect and embrace them.
Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families
Cokie and Steve Roberts
Harper / March 8, 2011 / 9780062018106 / $24.99