Despite our different beliefs, my husband and our two daughters from previous marriages have discovered a way to navigate Christmas and Hanukkah.
The night before the Jewish New Year this September, I reminded my husband that I needed to wake up earlier than usual the next morning.
“Why? What’s up?” he innocently replied. I looked across the living room at my 24-year-old stepdaughter and — as I had long ago learned from her and my own daughter — rolled my eyes.
“Temple,” she said with such speed and conviction that I knew I’d done a good job with her interfaith awareness. “Dad, it’s Rosh Hashana.”
Steve and I have been married for 15 years (it’s a second marriage for both), and it’s not that my husband — who is Catholic, as is his daughter — doesn’t care about my religion. But his lapse incited an image of my mother, finger wagging, admonishing: “You married outside your religion!”
After my Jewish husband and I divorced, I felt lonely going to temple every fall for the high holidays with just my parents. So in the early years of my marriage to Steve, I urged him to join me. He readily accepted my invitation and even donned a yarmulke, the delicate, silky cap comically sliding off his coarse hair. He’d sit and stand on cue, and he’d nod his head — or briefly nod off — whenever the rabbi recited in Hebrew. I stopped inviting Steve to temple on high holidays as soon as my daughter from my first marriage grew old enough to sit beside me without squirming, though she spent the entire time braiding my father’s tallit, or prayer shawl, its fringes dangling. Steve didn’t mind missing temple, so we continued that plan — except with time my daughter braided less and prayed more. This year, with my daughter away at college and my mother ailing, I went to temple with my dad, just us two, without feeling the need to invite Steve again.
Early in our marriage, Steve and I attended Mass together at his church, mostly at Easter and Christmas. My stepdaughter sat beside us; my daughter went off to her dad’s house. I learned to move my legs aside or risk getting a bruised ankle when they pulled down the kneelers, and I’d sit solo while others in my pew took Communion. I began looking forward to the sweet smell of incense. Eventually, Steve began attending church only with his daughter; I stayed home to prepare meals.
As a family, we created our own special memories. Granted, neither Steve nor I is very pious, though each adheres to religious values. Still, we used common sense, not major analysis, to shape the way we merged our religious lives, and we always insisted on keeping each daughter’s focus on the religion of her birth. No blessings before everyday meals, no Friday night Shabbat rituals nor weekly temple or church visits, just joint observances around holidays, feasts, and traditions. And some sacrifices: On the front door, he wanted a Christmas wreath, I a permanent Jewish mezuza; we compromised and nixed both. The first Christmas together, we invited the local volunteer Santa to our home. The girls sat on his lap and tore off the wrapping paper from gifts we’d supplied in advance. My stepdaughter’s present was a science kit; my daughter’s a dreidel. That was one perplexed Santa! In subsequent years, I discontinued this practice as my daughter began religious school at temple, but I still welcomed a small tree into the house, and both girls hung the ornaments. We all took turns lighting the Hanukkah menorah, and the two Catholics managed to bumble through the Hebrew prayer. And when our December holidays overlapped, our CD player blared “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” followed by “Eight Days of Hanukkah.”
The girls are young adults now, but some rituals continue when we’re all together. And when it’s just Steve and me, we seek out family or friends, or create new memories, like last year’s Passover Seder for two. More important, Steve and I exposed the girls to their own religions and educated them about their stepfamily’s traditions.
Instead of truly worrying about marrying outside my religion, I am grateful that families like ours can break rules and create new ones. And I guess if either of us gets off track, we can set each other straight with a little nondenominational eye rolling.