The Annual Women’s Seder and My Catholic Grandmother

So. I decided I would go to the annual women’s seder at our temple this year. I tend to shy away from these events because it is usually uncomfortable when “my slip shows,”  but I decided to expect the best. Plus, I was meeting up with a good friend I hadn’t seen in a while. I was kind of looking forward to it.

By the afternoon, I started to feel a bit anxious. Memories of past forays into the halls of  Sisterhood rushed back. I took a walk and drank a lot of water. Then I got this email: “Ladies-The theme of the Women’s Seder this year is Memories. We would like you to bring an artifact (piece of jewelry, photograph, wine cup, etc.) that is in memory of a significant (Jewish) woman in your life. If you do not have an artifact, then just bring the story…” 

I do not belong to a Conservative synagogue. We are Reform and decidedly open to interfaith couples. I am one of many  converts. (There are also many non-Jews who are actively raising Jewish children.) In my experience, most converts did not grow up with a host of Jewish women in their lives. In the past I would either have decided not to go, or I would have spoken about one of the two Jewish women who have been influential in my life. I would have been sad and lonely either way because I would have felt slighted. Why slighted? Because it’s not that I am without memories. It’s that my very loving memories of the significant women in my life – for obvious reasons – are about Catholic women. Caring, spiritual, warm Catholic women. Every one of whom contributed to the woman I am today. If you’re going to accept converts, you might want to take a broader view on who is an acceptable part of their loving past.

I emailed back: “I think memories is a lovely idea. I will bring an artifact that has to do with my Catholic grandmother. She was a huge influence in my spiritual life and is part of my Jewish identity today.”

I’m feeling about as welcome as an ant at a picnic, but what else is new? I am a Jew. I am a Jewish woman. I am raising three Jewish children. I have created a Jewish home. My memories are of my Catholic grandmother. They inform who I am and what I do. They are a part of what makes me the Jewish woman I am. That can hardly be unusual for a Jew by Choice.

I plan to bring along my grandmother’s battered little metal recipe box and tell about the integral role food played in every holiday or celebration of my life that I spent with her. Because of her, this element plays a huge part in the celebrations I create for my Jewish family today. I’ll share that one of my favorite memories is of how my grandmother used to stand at the stove and make hundreds of mini-meatballs for Italian wedding soup for us. She didn’t see it as a chore. She saw it as a way to bring joy to preparation for those celebrations. I may not be passing on that joy to the great grandchildren she envisioned, but I am passing on that joy to the great grandchildren she would have loved. Elena Proto DePhillips. May her memory be for a blessing.

SOOOOO??? I shared my story about my Nonna. One of the other women asked for one of her recipes. It felt just right. Not only did I not feel like an ant at a picnic, I felt very welcome. I’m tremendously grateful to my friend for going out of her way to meet me there. I would not have gone otherwise, and I would have missed an incredible opportunity to connect with the women at my congregation!

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