Today is Easter Sunday.
As is typical, the days prior are filled with conversations exploring the hidden meanings of the holiday’s commercialized symbols, such as fully bunnies and pastel eggs. In the past, The Wild Hunt has done its own contemplations on the subject. Are there really ancient Pagan origins nestled within the sacred Christian holiday?
As infinitely interesting as that discussion may be, I would like to focus on something entirely different; something often not discussed. This weekend also saw the celebration of another major religious holiday – Passover.Growing up surrounded by a Jewish family and having mostly Jewish friends, I never marked the entrance of spring with rabbits and divine rebirth. I was never coerced into wearing pastel dresses adorned with satin and tulle. For myself and many others, spring was ushered in by matzo, moror and mishpocheh.
At some point in April, when the dark New Jersey winters began to yield their annual grip, Passover would arrive. My Jewish family would come together for the sacred Seder tradition. Gathered around an extended dining room table with adults at one end and us, children, at the other, we’d eat, drink and recount the story of Passover using the Haggadah. Admittedly, there was always a whole lot of nonsensical giggling during the plagues. Nothing is funnier than frogs, boils and locust when you’re are five.
For Jews, the world over, Passover does in a way mark the beginning of spring. While many children cheer when the Cadbury eggs arrive in supermarkets, I was always overjoyed upon seeing store shelves packed with macaroons, Gefilte fish and Manishewitz wine. Of all the Jewish holidays, Passover was my favorite. Matzoh, Matzoh brei, Matzoh balls, Matzoh farfel cupcakes.
To this day, the springtime holiday holds a space – a sacred space – within my life. Although I was never religiously Jewish and I am now Pagan, I have retained a deep connection to my Jewish heritage and the traditions that come with it.
And, as I have learned, I am not alone in that feeling. While the majority of first generation Pagans and Heathens do come from Christian backgrounds, there are those that do not. Of that small sector of the population, many are of Jewish heritage.
Ilan Weiler, an eclectic Israeli Pagan studying Hermetic Magic, said, “I still consider myself Jewish. I view my Judaism as being more of an ethnic/tribal and cultural nature, and I recognize the Jewish deity on two levels: as the tribal deity of my ancestors on a polytheistic level (recognizing an ancient practice of henotheism), and on the occult level of Kabbalistic-Mystical concept, which I incorporate into my magical practices.” Weiler added that he sometimes attends temple service and “[studies] Jewish history, lore and scripture as to learn my ancestors beliefs and traditions.”
American Hermeticist Jonathan Korman also acknowledged honoring the Jewish deity as a “personal tribal deity.” He said that, on his Pagan altar, he maintains “an empty space for that god.”
Deborah Bender, an American Pagan of Jewish heritage, explained, “Jewish identity isn’t strictly religious. Secular Jews identify themselves as Jews on the basis of culture or ethnicity, often without having had much exposure to the Jewish religion or much education about it.”
While some Pagans with Jewish roots embrace their heritage, as Bender suggested, others do not. Illy Ra, a Kemetic Pagan living in the small town of Kadima in central Israel, said, “I don’t consider myself Jewish, I define myself as a Hebrew Pagan,” adding that she incorporates nothing from Judaism into her own Pagan practice. Similarly, Moon Daughter, an eclectic Israeli Pagan from Moshav, said, “I personally do not consider myself a Jew from the religious point of view, but I am a Jew in my cultural heritage and ethnicity.”
It is true that not every Pagan of Jewish heritage clings deeply to their roots. Interestingly, in some cases, these differences are marked by nationality. Very generally speaking, it would appear that Israeli and American Pagans have a different relationship with Judaism and Jewish culture. Moon Daughter speculated, “I live in Israel and I think a lot of Pagans here, not all naturally, are quite angry at monotheistic religions and certainly Judaism … The attitudes toward [the religion] are more complicated [than in the United States] since Judaism is not just a religion, it is also a national identity.”When becoming Pagan, Israeli Jews may have a more difficult time negotiating through their own internal “identity politics” than American Jews. As Moon Daughter noted Judaism in Israel is a religious practice and a national identity, both of which are married to culture, ancestors and family. Illy Ra added, “Even if one chose to leave the Jewish religion, the community will still see them as part of the Jewish community and culture.”
That is also partly true in the United States. There is a sense of Jewish-ness that exists beyond the practice of the religion itself and beyond spiritual belief. I can still feel that “belonging.” After telling my Aunt, a Jewish Atheist herself, that I was Pagan, she reminded me, “It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God. If Hitler came today, you would still be sent to a camp with all the other Jews.” And that, in her eyes, was enough.
This sense of tribal belonging – that Jewish-ness – is something that can be and is carried into Pagan practice. Bender explained, “The Jewish religion has a very strong tradition of discussion and argument, and the Talmud records minority opinions. I take from this that it’s okay to arrive at a different conclusion than other people if it’s based on reason and evidence and you don’t make yourself an enemy of the Jews.” She added that the Jewish people are “used to being a religious and ethnic minority, and not basing our self-image on what the dominant culture think.”
In our conversation, Bender also noted the similarities that she personally finds within Judaism and her Pagan practice. She said, “Judaism shares with Wicca the outlook that what you do is more important than what you believe. Wiccan sacred time is cyclical. Jewish sacred time is both cyclical and historically linear. The calendars of both have a lunar month and a solar year. Judaism and Wicca both concentrate on living this life but recognizing something beyond. Both teach that the world is fundamentally good that physical pleasures are divine gifts that we are responsible for our own actions.” She went on to list more.
Because of the strong cultural aspects that thrive within Judaism, many Pagans, at least in America, do not reject their Jewish heritage with the same level of hostility and frustration as often expressed by Christian peers. However, as noted earlier, Moon Daughter clarified that this generalization does not necessarily apply to those in Israel where Jewish culture informs the dominant social structure. Moon Daughter said “I guess [American Pagans] still feel like a minority that needs to stick together and do not want their criticism of Judaism to revert to anti-Semitism.” And that may be partially true.
American Pagans of Jewish heritage are minorities within a minority, which complicates the building of a religious and personal identity, especially when you still embrace your Jewish-ness. I have attended Pagan gatherings where I have felt moderately alienated, simply because I had no context for something happening or being discussed. The very first time that my coven sang Pagan “Yule” carols, I was a bit lost. The Frosty and Rudolf parodies were no issue, but when they got to “Goddess Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” I just sat quietly dreaming up Pagan words to the Dreidel Song. “I have a little cauldron. I may it out of clay….”
But getting back to spring and Passover, many Pagans of Jewish heritage still make their way to family or friends’ homes by sundown as tradition dictates. Once there, they relive an ancient story and participate in a sacred ritual and, more importantly, a family tradition. Moon Daughter said that she has attempted to find a Pagan interpretation for Passover Seder but “that is not always easy, since holidays are about family, and most of my larger family are of course non-Pagans.” Illy Ra said, “I do celebrate the holidays with my parents to respect their belief and culture, but I guess I would do the same if they belonged to any religion.”
Weiler also emphasized that the Seder is a time for family, describing his own tradition as being “secular” and “nothing more than a glorified family dinner.” However Weiler added that when he has his children, he would like to do a “real Seder, incorporating traditional, modern and Pagan notions.”
Bender, on the other hand, doesn’t like to mix her rituals. She said, “I try to stay within Jewish tradition when I’m doing Jewish rituals. If I want a fully Pagan ritual, it’s separate.” However, she did add that it is possible to “adapt” the Seder structure into a spring Pagan ritual, but she said, “You would have to do it carefully to avoid incoherence and cultural appropriation.”
As for me, this Jewish heritage has remained close by my side. I can still sing the four questions in Hebrew and make tasty kneidels, even though I no longer participate in a formal Seder. Should an emergency occur, I do own multiple Haggadahs, a matzo cover and a Seder plate. Each spring, as I prepare for Ostara, I also purchase a box of matzo and a few cans of macaroons. Like many others, this Jewish-ness colors who I am and, in many ways, the practice of my adopted Pagan religion.
Springtime cheers to all our readers who are enjoying this weekend’s religious festivities, whether it be for family, tradition, faith or simply matzo. L’Chiam and may you always find the afikomen!