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We’re Michele and Vanessa, and we’re getting married on April 30, 2017. Michele is Jewish and grew up just outside Philadelphia; Vanessa was raised in the Church of England (more or less equivalent to the Episcopal Church) a little outside London in the U.K. We got engaged in May 2015, and are thrilled to be counting down to the big day and our interfaith celebration.
Amidst our wedding planning (more on that another time), we’re also—like everyone else—planning our holiday celebrations. This is a pretty big year for us, as it’s our first Christmas in the U.S. For the last couple of years, we’ve gone to the U.K. and celebrated with Vanessa’s family; but this year we’re staying in Philly. For a while, I (Vanessa) was pretty sad: This is the first Christmas in 31 years that I won’t be with my family, watching my sister stare with trepidation through the oven door at the cauliflower cheese and roast potatoes and listening to my mum attempt the descants to Christmas carols on TV. But talking this over with Michele, and planning the holidays with her has brought me a lot of joy, as I’ve realized that this is actually a really exciting opportunity: We get to figure out how we can create our own traditions, and not just do whatever our families do, as we celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah.
This has led me to seek out cookie cutters in the shapes of dreidels and reindeer, menorahs and Christmas trees, and a variety of stars, both five- and six-pointed. I did a dance of delight in the Dollar Plus when I found Hanukkah garlands next to the Christmas tinsel. We started our own collection of tree ornaments that we’ll keep adding to each year, with a classy otter bauble from the Vancouver Aquarium on the first vacation we took together that didn’t involve either of our families. Our hope is that, in a few years’ time, our tree will be covered in ornaments that represent memories from our lives together. These things might sound frivolous, but for us, they symbolize the joining of our lives and our traditions; albeit in sparkly and (hopefully) delicious forms.
More seriously, we’ve had to negotiate with family members what holiday events we’re going to, with Hanukkah brunches and parties surrounding Christmas church services and the first Christmas dinner hosted by us for Michele’s family (complete with British stuffing and Christmas cake, sent all the way from England by my mum). We’ve had to think about what’s really important to us in terms of our own traditions, and about what elements we want to share with each other. I want to go to Christmas services because it’s important for me to hear a choir welcoming Christmas in with “Adeste Fidelis,” but I’m happy to let the cauliflower cheese go as we make the dinner kosher-style. Latkes are fairly high on Michele’s priority list, but being all together and visiting the various branches of her family is even higher.
It’s easy to get caught up in the mania of present-buying, tree-decorating, cookie-eating and playlist-curating, and to be honest I’m definitely enjoying all those parts. But Michele and I are able to use those things to have conversations about what the holidays mean to us, how our families traditionally celebrate them, and what we want them to be like in our married life together. Of course, I’ll still miss my family—but this December, I’ll be surrounded by the love of my new family, Michele and all the Zipkins, and I can’t wait. It’s a timely reminder that our wedding planning isn’t just about working toward a wedding, but a marriage. I feel incredibly lucky that we’re getting a head start on building our traditions for that marriage this year. Even if I’m covered in powdered sugar and my reindeer cookies look more like dogs.
One of my favorite holidays is Hanukkah, and for that, I give a lot of the credit to the Beerorah. The Beerorah is something that my fiancé Derek and I came up with the first Hanukkah we were dating – well, really it’s a gift pack from He’Brew brewing company (a division of Schmaltz brewing) that his best friend had given him when the friend found out he was dating me.
We joke that the Beerorah combines our two loves: “My love of God with his love of beer.” And Derek really does love beer – it’s his hobby in a true aficionado’s way. I have learned more about craft beer in the four-and-a-half years we’ve been together than most people learn in a lifetime, and we love to visit beer bars and breweries just to try new and rare beers. Also he and his best friend have a collection of over 500 bottles of (craft) beer, carefully inventoried in their “beerventory.”
As for me though, the love of God part is apt too. A Conservative Jew, Judaism has always been a large part of my identity. Growing up, I attended synagogue every Saturday because I wanted to – not only to gain guidance from the Rabbi’s sermons or to enjoy the serene satisfaction of the silent Amidah (one of my favorite prayers), but because it was the center of the social circle for my friends and I. Go on a date? Having family drama? Meet at synagogue and we can discuss it.
But going to synagogue and practicing Judaism were also integral to my identity in part because of the climate in which I grew up. I am from Riverdale, NY – home of eight or nine different synagogues and many many Jews. Nonetheless, my synagogue was swatstikaed one weekend when I was in Hebrew School. On the night before Kol Nidre (the holiest night of the year) a year or two after September 11th, our synagogue was firebombed with Molotov cocktails. We attended services while eager news crews waited outside to interview us and have gone through metal detectors and pat downs with varying regularity ever since. So my Judaism and its essentialness to my identity came in part from the fears to my safety that came with it – and the way those fears bound my group of close friends and I together to the community and to each other.
That said, it was never essential to me to date a Jewish guy. I greatly enjoyed learning about different religions and cultures and watching people experience aspects of Judaism for the first time. I always had a strong opinion about how I wanted to observe Judaism and had my own relationship with God. I knew that my kids will be Jewish, that I am Jewish, that my family is Jewish, that I will never be anything but Jewish. And honestly, I knew I needed a laid back low-maintenance sports fan kind of guy – I wasn’t sure I would necessarily find that within the Jewish community.
You can say “Oh, but traditions! But continuity! But faith!” but I have also found that Derek has been much more respectful of my faith and practice than the Jewish guys I’ve dated. One got mad at me for not answering the phone while I was at a Friday night Shabbat dinner. I got in a heated argument with another who asked, “But WHY do you believe? WHY do you have faith? Where’s the rational proof that God exists?” Both were the moments when I knew the relationships wouldn’t work out. The Beerorah was one of the first examples of Derek’s openness and respect of my faith. And when we light it together each Hanukkah (this year was its fifth iteration), it reminds me of that – that we can meld what matters to us together to create something just as wonderful (or more wonderful) than the original. I haven’t compromised anything – I’m still Jewish, and I still have my love of God and my observance. He still has his love of beer. And we both have each other.