Going Nativity

My husband wants a crèche for Christmas this year. I've already conceded the tree. In fact, last year, I bought and decorated the tree myself. But a crèche? The little baby Jesus in the manger? There's no room for a rationale about pagan roots or solstice traditions, as with Christmas trees and Easter eggs. There's no getting that a crèche is something only Christians have in their homes. As a Jew, even a non-believing half-Jew with some Christian roots, this is a tough one to swallow.

Nativity

My Armenian grandmother wore a cross around her neck but never spoke about it. On Christmas Eve, we ate stuffed grape leaves and basterma (cured spiced meat), while the TV alternated between the Yule Log and the Pope on mute. The only time I went to the Armenian church was for funerals. I remember the mural of a white dove on a light blue background and robed men swinging incense in fancy bronze containers. I didn't understand Armenian, so I had no response to what the priest was saying. I just listened to the sound of his voice, smelled the incense and looked at the pretty bird.

On the Jewish side, I felt similarly separate, but a bit more alienated. My Jewish grandparents were so angry at my mother for marrying outside the faith that they did not attend her wedding. They reconciled after my older brother was born, but there were conditions. We didn't talk about the non-Jewish parts of our lives. We didn't mention Christmas or Easter or the fact that we had driven to the seder. (How else were we going to get to Queens from New Jersey?) My parents never instructed us to do this. We just knew that we should do it.

I constantly worried that I would do something wrong, accidentally break a Jewish law, and cause shame and horror to my grandparents. Once I poured milk into one of my grandmother's cups and found out later that these cups were meant for meat meals. And, I'm not sure if this was breaking a law exactly, but it was certainly humiliating: once, at Passover, when I was about 11 years old, I was asked to recite the Four Questions. For some reason, I had such a giggle fit that I could not read the words in front of me. My grandfather looked at me from the end of the table, red-faced from eating so much horseradish (to experience the tears of his ancestors) and from speed reading the Hebrew haggadah (none of which I understood). He didn't say anything. He just sat quietly, disapproving.

People often look at me wide-eyed when I describe my family's background: We have genocide on both sides. My father's family fled Turkey around 1913-15. His mother saw her parents killed right in front of her, and experienced other personal atrocities. On the Jewish side, my family left Russia and the Ukraine around 1930, during a period of violence. My grandmother described hearing women screaming when the neighbor's house was attacked.

Aspects of this history of persecution have been passed down to me. I feel an intense loyalty to both the Jews and the Armenians as a people. And, like many interfaith children, I feel that I both belong and don't belong to each group. I also feel somehow responsible for the "dilution of the race," which seems like a crazy idea in this day and age. My children are only one-quarter Armenian and one-quarter Jewish (though they will be recognized as Jews by rabbis and the State of Israel). They are even more mixed than I am, since my husband is Italian, Sicilian, Irish and English, raised mostly in the Episcopal Church and heavily influenced by the Twelve Step programs.

When my husband had a spiritual awakening several years ago, things really began to get interesting for us. He now has a daily practice of meditation and prayer, and he believes in God. Our discussions about the topic of God and religion have been painful at times. He is not pushing us to go to church, which is fortunate. I never feel more Jewish than when I'm sitting in a church. There might as well be a big arrow pointing at my head: Jew! Jew! Needless to say, our attempts to attend Christian services of any kind have not been successful.

I know almost nothing about the Bible, Old Testament or New. Growing up, I attended Ethical Culture Sunday school with my brother and sister. There were other mixed families there, and when my friends were having Bar or Bat Mitzvahs and Confirmations, it was important to have a ceremony of my own. But there was nothing at all religious or spiritual about ECS. It was a purely intellectual experience. Aside from the important experience of fitting into a group, it did not fulfill the role of a church or synagogue. And so, although ECS was a good choice for my parents, it is not the right choice for me or my family.

I am not a believer. I am hugely skeptical of all religions. I'm hostile to the idea of attending church or a crèche entering my home. I cannot imagine ever feeling at home in a house of worship. And yet, I long for something old and holy in my life: a set of traditions, some guidelines to support the act of questioning, to provide comfort, to connect me and my family to the past.

But my attachment to the traditions of both sides of my family is conflicted. I feel like a Jew, but I'm angry that my Jewish family rejected my mother and father. I feel Armenian, but I don't speak the language, and I am not a Christian. (Armenians pride themselves in having created the first Christian nation, and the Bible says that Noah's Ark landed on Mt. Ararat.) Without a strong cultural or religious foundation, it has often been difficult for me to sustain the idea that my life has meaning.

Since my husband's awakening, we have gotten married and had our two babies. Our wedding was a Quaker-inspired ceremony with no officiant. It included a secularized version of the Seven Jewish Blessings and took place at an Italian restaurant in New York City. Musicians performed traditional Armenian oud music while the guests ate their manicotti. During the ceremony, my husband and I repeated these words from the Book of Ruth: "Where you go, I will go and where you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die."

I meant these words when I said them, and writing them here again, I feel their power. I don't have to believe in the same God as my husband for these words to be true. I don't have to believe in God at all. But what he believes is a part of me because it's part of the family we have made together. So on Christmas this year, as our kids peer at our family's crèche, they'll sense their father's childlike wonder and their mother's slight resistance. What they carry forward will be something altogether different, something their parents will never understand exactly. That is how traditions are made, and that is how they change.

Rebecca Gopoian has written poetry and prose for elimae, the Denver Quarterly, Taint, Tarpaulin Sky, Sleeping Fish, Margie, the Avatar Review, Bombay Gin and VeRT. She was born in Teaneck, N.J., and now lives in Queens, N.Y., with her husband, the cartoonist David Heatley, and their two children, Maya and Samuel.
Cabinet at the front of the synagogue where the Torah is kept. Book of prayers, stories, and songs used on Passover. The language of Judaism. Used in prayer in most synagogues and the official language of the state of Israel. Also refers to Jews, especially before they entered Israel and were given the Torah, as in "the ancient Hebrews." Religious obligation or commandments; good deeds. The spring holiday commemorating the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. "Order" in Hebrew. Refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu B'Shevat meals. Place of Jewish worship, referring to both the room where it occurs and the building where it occurs. Colloquially referred to as "temple."