(From Mixed and Matched column March 2015)
I’ve received many questions this month about painting eggs. Spring brings Passover and Easter, sometimes right on top of each other. While Jews are focusing on slavery, emancipation and unleavened bread, Easter seems to be focusing on bunnies, candy baskets and egg hunts. The real meaning of the holiday gets lost on a lot of Jewish families, especially the children. So I did some research on Easter that may be helpful in deciding what is best for your own family.
Dear Jewish parents everywhere,
We hear just bits and pieces about the meaning of Easter. I did some research so that we could have a more thorough understanding. Then, we can make our own determinations about what is best for our family. My firm belief is that knowledge makes our decision making easier and more comfortable. It can help to cut down on arguments between spouses and between parents and children. I want you to know what Easter observances are about, where they came from and, armed with this knowledge, decide what works for you. And yes, I know many Jews with two Jewish parents who colored eggs as kids. It was basically a craft activity for them.
The Easter Story
Easter is not a jolly holiday about the birth of a baby; rather it is a grim story of a gruesome death. The story’s ending is positive for believers in that Christ’s resurrection symbolizes salvation. Religious Easter is impossible to separate from its Christian message. Many Jews can’t put aside the fact that the person who is horribly killed is a Jew and yet all Jews get blamed for it… for all eternity. So be prepared for many Jews to have a visceral reaction to the idea of celebrating Easter in anyway. You may feel that you’re just doing the chocolate part of the holiday, yet others may see that as unacceptable. Be prepared to deal with these emotions. Remember that that’s what they are, emotions, and as such are neither right nor wrong.
The Easter Egg
The early Christians actively proselytized and one of the effective methods of doing so was to absorb the traditions of the community into which they spread their faith. Reinterpreting a ritual and reframing it in Christian symbolism was a less obvious way to monopolize the religion practices of indigenous peoples and to ease them into Christianity. It may feel creepy to our modern ears, but it’s better than being killed. So, Easter, like many Christian holidays, borrows heavily from pagan practices; in this case, springtime rituals.
The tradition of coloring eggs goes back thousands of years in pagan traditions. The egg was widely used as a symbol of rebirth and renewal. Painted eggs are still used at the ancient Iranian spring holiday, Nooruz, which is from the Zoroastrian religion. Just a note, Zoroastrianism is as old as Judaism; both of us have our beginnings in the earth based rituals of early civilization. Pysanka eggs, those gorgeous wax-resist eggs from the Ukraine, also date back to a pagan religion from a time when Ukrainians worshipped a sun god, Dazhboh. Part of that worship included decorated eggs.
The Easter egg is the latest addition to these springtime egg festivities. It is also called the Paschal egg, Paschal meaning “pertaining to Easter or Passover” How’s that for mixing things up! The egg was re-interpreted to symbolizes the sealed tomb in which Jesus’ body was placed. Think: just as a bird hatches alive from an egg, so too did Jesus emerge alive from the tomb. The message being that believing Christians will also experience eternal life. Traditionally the eggs were dyed red to symbolize Christ’s blood.
The Easter Bunny
The rabbit has always been known to be quite fertile so their association with springtime, fertility and rebirth is natural. Ancient Greeks believe that the rabbit was a hermaphrodite and could reproduce without a partner. Christianity interpreted this to mean that the rabbit remained a virgin even though it gave birth and it became associated with the Virgin Mary.
Now, what do we do with this knowledge?
Clearly there is nothing Jewish about Easter. Celebrating or observing any of the rituals of Easter, whether you see them as Christian or pagan, is going to be seen as “not Jewish” in the Jewish community. Now you must ask yourself, what do I want to teach my children? And what do I feel about other people’s opinions?
So, what about the kids?
If you want to color eggs because “it’s fun” I suggest you teach your children the historical meaning of painted eggs. By teaching them the truth you are equipping them to respond with confidence, and probably greater knowledge, to anyone who challenges them. You can say, “Decorating eggs has been a tradition for thousands of years in other religions, here are some of the ways that it was done and understood by people from other places in the world. We are painting them because it’s fun and pretty and we are learning about their history.”
To the Jewish mom who said her daughter wants to paint eggs to represent the 10 plagues I say, wow, your daughter is wonderfully creative! You could tell your daughter that people from different backgrounds borrow from each other and you are borrowing the idea of painted eggs and turning it into a Jewish expression for your family. You could use the eggs as part of your Seder table decorations and get the kids to guess which egg is which plague. This practice isn’t a Jewish tradition now, but who knows, maybe she’s starting something!
What about the opinions of others?
I’m not going to tell you to ignore or denigrate them. Judaism is a communal practice; we do it together for better or worse. I suggest you use your now superior knowledge to explain to them what you’ve learned, what you’ve decided based upon that and your family’s best interests. If they still can’t accept what you are doing AND they are important to you, I suggest you ask them if there is a Jewish practice that seeing you do would comfort them. Explore whether they feel that these eggs are going to curtail your Jewish practice or damage your child’s Jewish identity? If you currently send your child to Hebrew school, observe Shabbat, and have a Passover Seder gently point out to them that your Jewish practice far outweighs some colored eggs. If they still can’t accept your practice, or these are people you don’t really care about anyway, tell them that you will have to agree to disagree, and walk away.