For interfaith families, Cokie Roberts’ name — more often synonymous with national broadcast news and political commentary — might soon take on a whole new meaning.
With “Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families,” Cokie (who is Catholic) and her husband, Steve Roberts (who is Jewish), have written a book that’s at once a practical, accessible haggadah for Passover and a roadmap of sorts for other interfaith couples grappling with the task of raising a family with two different religions.
It’s the couple’s second book together; the first, the New York Times bestseller “From This Day Forward,” told the story of their then-33-year union. A decade later, the Roberts have turned their attention specifically to interfaith marriage, an issue they say is timely and relevant for many American couples. The Roberts drew heavily on their own story of sticking together despite the challenges — including that most dreaded obstacle, the disapproving mother-in-law — to illustrate the potential strengths of interfaith relationships.
“We were 19 and 18 when we met in college, and we saw in each other a devotion to our own traditions and heritages that was really recognizable,” says Steve, a renowned journalist in his own right and a professor of journalism at George Washington University. The couple is seated in the lobby of the Prescott Hotel just before a scheduled talk and book signing March 14 at the JCC of San Francisco. Earlier that morning, they were on KQED radio speaking with Michael Krasny.
“The question of conversion just never came up with us,” says Steve, who was raised in a non-religious Jewish household in New Jersey. “It would have been antithetical to who we were, who we knew the other to be … and [having different faiths] was a source of connection rather than discord.”
It makes sense, then, that in addition to providing the traditional Pesach story, the couple’s haggadah is full of quotes and anecdotes from a wide range of historical figures, including non-Jews such as Che Guevara and Susan B. Anthony.
“If you ever doubted the universal meaning and relationship of the Passover story, just look to Tahrir Square,” Steve says. “What were those people saying? ‘Let my people go.’ It was the oldest story ever told, in a way. And as the Jewish half of the partnership, I felt strongly that it was important to have people recognize their own background and their own traditions and [intellectuals] who have something to say about this universal theme.”
Cokie, who has come to be regarded as “the best Jew in the family” for her eagerness to learn about Judaism, says writing down their family’s version of the seder just made sense.
“There are feminist haggadahs, there are lesbian haggadahs, there are all kinds of radical versions, and what’s surprising is there really wasn’t an interfaith one,” she says. “And when you’re talking about 50 percent of Jewish marriages being outside of the faith, there did seem to be a screaming need for it.”
The Roberts also see an opportunity in the haggadah for culturally Jewish families who have never been observant (much like Steve’s own family) or never felt knowledgeable enough to lead seders. The book includes Hebrew, but reads left to right — a conscious decision to make it more accessible to new readers.
Steve, who attended Harvard University, says intermarriage is one result of American Jews continuing to surpass their parents in terms of education — mixing with those from other backgrounds is natural in today’s institutions of higher learning. And while parents might see a non-Jewish partner as a threat, Steve says they’d do better to try to understand.
“The kids are going to get married anyway, you’re not going to stop them,” he says. “And if your policy is going to drive them away, how does that work for you? The way to do it is to reach out to these couples, make them feel included, and respected … and then you have a possibility of accomplishing what you want, which is to really nurture and grow the Jewish community.”
“Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families” by Cokie and Steve Roberts (192 pages, Harper, $19.99)