Growing up in Dominican Republic, we didn't really get much exposure to religions outside Christianity. The country is mostly Catholic — which is how I grew up — and there are many Christian denominations that make themselves heard. Of course, I knew about Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc., although we only touched on them very briefly in school. It's one thing to read about them and know they exist; it's another to experience or live them.
It wasn't until I dated a Jewish man after I moved to NYC that I got my first real taste of something very different from what I was used to. I learned there are three main types of Judaism: reformed, who are more liberal and progressive and encourage people to choose the ways to be Jewish that mean the most to them based on traditions; conservative, who are those who feel that reformed Judaism is too radical and want to "conserve" Jewish traditions as they are; and orthodox, who believe that the laws of God are timeless and can't be changed.
My boyfriend at the time — let's call him David — and his family were conservative Jews. I met his parents maybe two months into our relationship. We flew to Florida, where they lived, and they welcomed me into their home like I was another one of their kids. The first thing I learned was that they kept kosher, and I quickly picked up how to move around a kosher kitchen so I could fully earn his mom's trust.
Basically, you can't mix dairy and meat per a rule in the Torah, and there's a third food category called pareve, which is foods that don't contain meat, milk, or their derivatives and you can eat with both meat or dairy dishes. Another big thing for me as a Dominican was that they didn't eat pork or shellfish.
Friday nights were for Shabbat dinner. After sundown, we'd say a blessing called kiddush, and after dinner, we'd rest until Saturday at sundown, when we'd recite a Havdalah blessing. During Shabbat, we weren't allowed to do things that involved "labor," as it was a day to relax and contemplate the spiritual aspects of life and also to spend time with family.
Another thing I learned was that holidays and celebrations are extremely important, which resonated a lot with my upbringing. David and his family welcomed me to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, a bris, all the Shabbat dinners if we were in Florida, Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, and even Yom Kippur. They were patient with me and taught me all the ins and outs of each celebration and why it was important. My favorite of them all though was Passover.
Passover, or Pesach, is the commemoration of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt after generations of slavery and how the plague that killed all Egyptians firstborn "passed over" their homes.
The Seder marks the beginning of Passover, and it's a family dinner filled with rituals to remind you of the significance of the holiday. Each guest gets a book called Haggadah that explains each moment and includes all the prayers and what we need to do. The Haggadah that I would get had the text in Hebrew, the same text written in the Latin alphabet, and it included English translations under each line so I could easily follow along and understand what was happening, as I don't speak Hebrew.
It was a long dinner. There were many important moments, like blessings, washing the hands, breaking the matzo (unleavened bread), drinking wine, and singing, but the moment that really made me emotional was the "four questions." The youngest able person at the table — in my case, it was David's cousin Leah who was 12 at the time — asks: "Why is this night different from all the other nights?" and there is a particular question for each thing that's done.
The answers explain that matzo is eaten because their ancestors couldn't wait for the bread to rise when fleeing; that maror, or bitter herbs, remind them of the bitterness of slavery; that you dip your vegetables twice in saltwater because the first time is replacing tears with gratitude, and the second one is the sweetening of their burden; and that they recline at the Seder table because that's what "free" persons used to do while slaves stood.
It really got to me because this specific part is what's really passing the traditions to the younger generations. Seeing the whole family there, sitting together, sharing these moments, made me feel really grateful that they included me, that they became my second family away from home, that they made their home a safe space for me, and that they also had my back.
I usually say I'm very lucky because my first biggest "culture shock" experience was not as "shocking" as it should've been — there was a family behind it who was also willing to teach me. It made me realize that for me, personally, it doesn't matter your cultural or religious background, as long as we have that common ground called family.
I'm lucky to have a healthy relationship with my own family. I know that's not the case for many, and to find someone who also had that same type of relationship with his was something that made the whole process much more seamless. I learned so much about Judaism, and I appreciate the traditions even more. And, as I was reading and learning more about it, I found out that Jesus's Last Supper, which Catholics remember on Maundy Thursday, was a Passover Seder dinner, and that's why Passover and Semana Santa are somewhat aligned.
So, as someone who was raised Catholic, being part of a true Jewish Seder made me understand my own religion a little better, gave me context, and brought me a little closer to home.