Where Passover Meets Tragedy: The Secret Pain for Some Jewish Families

I remember doing the Passover Seder with family and friends ever since I was a very young child.  Each year, when we reached the part in the Seder where we recited the ten plagues, I dutifully dipped a finger in my glass of grape juice and touched my plate ten times, one for each plague.  The tenth and final plague was the worst – the death of the firstborn son – and we specifically talked about how God knew to “pass over” the homes of the Jewish slaves in Egypt and spare their firstborn sons.

Passover is a holiday where Jewish people are supposed to feel grateful as we celebrate our freedom from slavery in Egypt lo those many years ago.  It is a festive time, a time of family and food and togetherness.  But I harbor a secret pain on Passover, and the only person who I can talk to about it is my husband, because he feels the same way.

The first Passover after we lost baby Matthew, I remember sitting at a Seder at the house of my in-laws.  My father-in-law reached the part in the Seder where he began reciting the plagues.  Suddenly I felt nauseous, dizzy to the point of reeling.  “Don’t.  Stop reading them,” I said abruptly.  He stopped.  He paused, looked in his Haggadah, and seamlessly moved on to the next part.  Everyone knew why.  No one discussed it.  We just moved on.

At that moment, I wasn’t thinking about being grateful for my freedom (although I am, oh how I am, even though I know I can’t fully appreciate my freedom, having never been without it).  But I can appreciate the loss of a firstborn son.  Where was God when my firstborn son needed to be passed over?  I sit here with tears in my eyes as I write this, a full decade after that first terrible year.  What happened to our baby was just bad luck; I know that, and religion had nothing to do with it, but my gut instinct on Passover is to seek answers.  The answer, of course, is simply that some babies aren't healthy enough to live, and it happened to ours.

After that first year, Andrew and I found Passover so intolerable that we simply abandoned it.  For years, we stopped going to Seders.  We didn’t buy matzah; we simply continued eating our regular foods.  We ignored the holiday rather than feel guilty for feeling sad and alone at Seder.  If asked, my husband would say flatly, “We don’t like Passover.”  Even after we adopted Katie, we continued to ignore Passover.  It just felt too heavy.   I had fleeting thoughts of other Jewish families who have lost firstborn sons, infants or older, and I wondered if they experienced the same internal conflicts.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago when Katie began learning about Passover in Sunday school that we finally started to do Seders again.  Truthfully, it still hurts to recite the plagues, all these years later, but it helps to look around the table and see what we have, the daughters who make us parents.   Two nights ago, as we conducted our Seder, each of the girls took a turn reading.  Even two-year-old Cleo wanted to read, so we handed her the Haggadah and let her ramble on for a bit about her version of the Passover story.  She basically said, “A long time ago, the people were rude and it was not fun and the babies died.”  Pretty good summary, if you ask me.

There is no firstborn son at our table, but there are three lovely daughters, each filled with more life and freedom than I ever anticipated.  It was worth returning to Passover to hear them reading at the Seder and to see them eating Matzah.  I look at their bright young faces, and gratitude is easy to feel.  I think of all the other Jewish families who carry secret pain at Seder, and I hold them in my heart. May your Passover be as easy as possible.

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Carrie Goldman is the author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear and blogs about adoption, parenting, and contemporary culture.

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