Crossing Cultural Frontiers at Passover and EasterBy: Tuvya Zaretsky
We often remind our readers that all communication is cross cultural. That dynamic might be hard to see until you and your partner celebrate a meaningful family life-cycle event or a traditional holiday celebration. The close proximity of Passover and Easter often provide those opportunities for discovery.
Marc and Sandy, a Jewish-Gentile couple, reported just such a cross-cultural encounter when I interviewed them. It began at Passover when Marc brought his new wife, Sandy, to his parents’ home for Passover. Sandy, a born-again follower of Jesus, looked forward to knowing her Jewish in-laws better. She read about Passover in her Bible and wasn’t even aware that Jesus celebrated the festival (Luke 22 or John 2–3 and 11ff). She was excited to celebrate it with her new extended family … but all at the same time and very loudly?
It wasn’t what she expected. Sandy was overwhelmed by all the simultaneous conversations. She didn’t know where to jump in or even whether her participation was welcomed. She enjoyed participating in the prayers that were read from the Haggadah. If in English, she could understand and recognize some of the Psalms and the Exodus portions that were familiar narratives.
On their way home, Sandy described feeling like an outsider at Marc’s family gathering. She felt like she was seen as not being a member of the tribe. Before that evening, Marc wasn’t aware of the culture shock Sandy might experience at her first Passover. However, he did receive her description as coming from someone who loves him and his family. She genuinely wanted to know more about their different practices, beliefs, and the ways they related.
It was just a weird experience. Neither of them anticipated the experience of cross-culture shock in the homes of their own families. Marc, in turn, described his discomfort at lunch with Sandy’s family after attending a “Resurrection Sunday” service on Easter.
Church was easier for Marc since he wasn’t a Christian and regarded himself as just a cultural outside observer. Afterward, at home with Sandy’s family, he had questions but didn’t want his curiosity to be misunderstood for spiritual hunger. Marc knew a little about Sandy’s faith from earlier conversations. He just needed time to learn the vocabulary and meaning behind the beliefs. Like, at communion, why did her pastor say, “Jesus gave the bread and cup to his followers during their Passover”? And later, with Sandy’s family, Marc respectfully described that same outsider feeling during their practice of prayer before the meal. He didn’t know what to do as Sandy’s family members took hands, closed their eyes, and Sandy’s father prayed. Then, her mom told Marc, in honor of his presence, they were having pot roast instead of their usual Easter ham. He appreciated the gesture, even if he didn’t know exactly what it meant. Was that a huge sacrifice for them since somehow ham is associated with the resurrection of Jesus?
Crossing cultural frontiers at Passover and Easter really isn’t that hard if we can take time to learn from one another. We are all trapped to some degree by ethnocentrism: the attitude that our cultural assumptions about our own ways of doing things are correct or even natural, that it is obvious to everyone, and is possibly even necessary while dismissing the cultural assumptions of other people at the same moment. We can begin breaching those obstacles by asking simple questions. During a Passover family gathering, four questions are posed for the sake of teaching children: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
To increase cross-cultural understanding, we ought to ask what even common words mean when they are used in another person’s culture. For example, “bread” at Passover has very specific composition and significance. The same word “bread” as used during a Christian communion service might have various ingredients and a particular importance to those receiving it.
At this time of year, there are distinctions to be discovered within cultures. Like, what is the difference between Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread? Or what is the difference between references to Easter or Resurrection Sunday? Crossing cultural frontiers requires you to step out intentionally to discover what matters to your Jewish-Gentile partner. The more you learn, the safer it becomes to ask questions and learn about the other culture. Greater understanding brings us closer together and, at the same time, makes finding spiritual harmony possible.