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Cokie’s in Hadassah, Nelson’s in the Haggadah (and Israel’s in the West Bank)

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With no accountability, context or synthesis to Palestine, Cokie Roberts’s husband Steve Roberts explains to an NPR interviewer that the politics of Zionism replaced Judaism/ Religion for Eastern European immigrants (though that question wasn’t the intention of the interview, they were promoting interfaith Haggadah). Listen to Steve and Cokie Roberts discuss seders, replacement religion/Zionism, interfaith, etc on NPR’s Talk of the Nation (3:00-4:30 or so), or read the NPR transcript below, or read my edited transcript further on.

ROBERTS: … When we got married, we agreed that we were going to be respecting and celebrating each other’s religions and traditions in our home. And after I went to my first Seder I loved it and understood that this was going to be something that I wanted to do. So, after a couple of years I got up the courage to do it myself and we’ve been doing it ever since.

Mr. ROBERTS: And you say that hard for Cokie, but in some ways is even harder for my mother. (Soundbite of laughter) As a Jewish woman who is deeply attached to her tribe and her culture but never darkened a synagogue, the whole notion of actually us celebrating the Seder was sort of strange to her. In fact, she often said, before she died last fall, that the first Seder she ever went to was organized by her Catholic daughter-in-law. So, go figure.

NEAL CONAN: So you were raised in a non-observant Jewish family…

Mr. ROBERTS: To say the least.

CONAN: …in Bayonne, New Jersey and these were people who were very political, and Zionist in some respects, but not necessarily Jewish.

Mr. ROBERTS: And that’s actually quite typical of the Jew…

ROBERTS: Well, they were very Jewish.

Mr. ROBERTS: Yeah.

ROBERTS: They just weren’t religious.

Mr. ROBERTS: Well, they were tribally and culturally Jewish. If you woke my mother up in the middle of the night and said Dorothy Roberts, what are you, she probably would have said mother first and Jew second. But she never, ever went to a synagogue. My grandfather, her father was never bar mitzvahed. Neither of my grandfathers were ever bar mitzvahed or participated in any religious ritual. But as you point out, in that world of Eastern European immigrate Jews, often politics replaced religion. Zionism, socialism, Bundism -they were all very powerful. I used to say that my grandfather, his real rabbi was actually Larry Spivak, who was the host of “Meet the Press,” when he was growing up. And my grandfather’s religious devotion was to listen to Rabbi Larry. It wasn’t to go…

ROBERTS: But that grandfather had gone to Palestine as a young man, as a pioneer. So he was very much a Zionist.

CONAN: Well, Steve described how his mother came to some revelations at your Seder. What about your mom?

ROBERTS: Oh, my mother loves Seder. My mother’s 95 and she comes all the time and loves it. The only year she missed was the year she was at the Vatican. But she found some Seders to go to there as well. She was very close friends with the Israeli ambassador.

Mr. ROBERTS: Ambassador, right.

ROBERTS: And so they celebrated Passover there as well.

Mr. ROBERTS: You know, it’s funny, Neal, because you mentioned my mother-in-law. I’ve often kidded that I’m the only Jew from Bayonne, New Jersey whose mother-in-law was an ambassador to the Vatican. But now I’m the only Jew whose mother-in-law was an ambassador to the Vatican, whose wife, the esteemed National Public Radio correspondent, Cokie Boggs Roberts, is now a life member of Hadassah – thanks to the good women of Boca Raton, Florida. So… 

CONAN: You mention that – I just wanted to read a short excerpt: Rabbi Jill Jacobs of the Jewish Funds for Justice, suggests asking guests to bring something that reminds them of the Passover story, a memento from their own family’s immigration to America, for example, or a news story about a contemporary liberation struggle.

And then you have quotes from Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Sojourner Truth. It goes on and on and on.

Mr. ROBERTS: Well, it’s going to be easy this year. I mean, you know, you talk about – we’ve been kidding about this, but we do want to thank our new press agent, Hosni Mubarak, for reminding everybody how universal this story is. 

As Cokie says, it’s a Jewish holiday, but it’s a universal message, and your caller reinforced that, as well. And it is a year when the connection between the ancient Jewish story and the modern yearning for freedom is pretty tangible.

Ms. ROBERTS: In the first – in the early centuries, actually, Passover and Easter were the same celebration. Easter was a Passover celebration. And only in, you know, well into the establishment of the church, several centuries in, did Easter become a separate celebration.

my transcript with relevant points only:

“tribally and culturally Jewish … non-observant Jewish family … to say the least … you say it was hard for Cokie but it was hard for my mother, as Jewish woman who was very attached to her tribe and her culture but NEVER darkened a synagogue the whole notion of actually us celebrating (sarcastically gasping) who never set foot in a synagogue the notion of us actually celebrating the seder was as a Jewish woman deeply attached to tribe and culture … these were people who were very political and Zionist … that is actually quite typical … they were very Jewish just not religious … they were tribally and culturally Jewish … never went to a synagogue … never participated in any religious ritual … but as you point out in that world of Eastern European immigrant Jews often politics replaced religion –ionism, socialism, Bundism (replaced Judaism/ religion) … they were all very powerful I used to tell my grandfather his real Rabbi was actually Larry Spivak who was the host from Meet the Press when he was growing up … and my grandfather’s religious devotion was to listen to “Rabbi” Larry … but that grandfather had gone to Palestine as a young man and as a pioneer [pioneer? what!?] so he was very much a Zionist …”

Laila El-Haddad

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