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April 9, 2009

I sat in the back row of the nearly empty church, my stare fixed on the large wooden cross behind the altar. A feeling of sadness and warmth washed over me all in the same breath.

I woke up that Easter morning and drove the unfamiliar streets of my new city for nearly an hour searching for some sort of familiarity in a church façade and in my faith. I desperately wanted to hear the Easter story and take part in communion on this holiest of days. Church after church door was locked. After giving up and trying to find my way back home, I stumbled across a tiny church hidden down a back road. The doors were open and I saw a few people mingling inside.

Easter Lilies stock photographServices were over, but I sat down quietly on the last pew to at least meditate on my own. I thought of my family at home and the years of Easter Sundays spent together. Easter baskets waiting for us filled with fluffy bunnies and Reese's peanut butter eggs, then a long church service, and a raucous family reunion and egg hunt in the afternoon. My childhood pretty much centered around our church. At three, I was already an integral part of the Sunday morning worship service, standing on a chair in front of the congregation, and singing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" (or in my 3-year-old interpretation of the old hymn "Leaning on the Ever Plastic Arms"). I spent most Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights surrounded by my church family and my own family. Now sitting in that back row, I tried to focus on the cross and forget that I was alone and probably will be every Easter Sunday.

I moved to Atlanta the previous New Year's Eve with my Jewish fiancé. I was closer to my hometown in Alabama, but felt further away than I had ever been this day. Five years earlier, I met my now husband in college and our whirlwind romance quickly felt too right to be just a fling and soon our future together seemed inevitable. I fell in love with him and six years, two big moves, and one wedding later, I am still falling.

When we first started dating and our peers' toughest dating decision was what fraternity party to attend that weekend, we were deciding the faith of our future children. Our religion, although different, has the same meaning in our lives. Take it away from us, and you are left with a shell of a person. One would expect that people so devoted to their religion would beg for the other to convert. In the six years we have been together, not once have we ever asked the other to convert. I love his relationship with God and the beautiful ancient traditions he finds so much meaning in. And he respects my Christianity and his ever burning desire to learn makes for many a midnight discussions about my faith. My husband's favorite explanation of us, when no other can be found is: "I don't think God is playing a horrible joke on me by sending my beshert in shiksa form." God truly wants us to be together as a family.

We spoke for endless hours, days, months about our decision to raise Jewish children and keep a Jewish home. Putting it into practice seemed like to logical next step and we decided to move to Washington D.C., to begin our life together. No smell of bacon on Saturday mornings, no crosses on the wall, no Christmas tree topped with a homemade angel. Now lox and bagels are in my fridge, Shabbat candles burn on Friday nights and Hanukkah menorahs are the winter decor.

After 15 minutes of being alone in the church, people began to drift in. One by one they took their place in the pews and it only took a few minutes for the empty church to fill. It began to look like I was going to be able to attend an Easter service after all. In a room full of strangers, different emotions fought for first place … anxiety, loneliness, joy, peace. The warmth of family surrounded me, but it was not mine to enjoy. Mothers fussed over their daughters' new dresses bought especially for this morning, fathers and their sons greeted each other in warm embrace, husbands held the hands of their wives in the pews. The mix of joy and sadness was too much for my eyes to bear, and they spilled their tears onto my cheeks. "What am I doing?" I thought to myself. On this, my most holy day, I was wallowing in self-pity. I wiped away my tears in defiance to my eyes and again focused on the cross.

The pastor took his place behind the altar and motioned for the congregation to stand. "Padre Nuestro … " the pastor began. Great, I found my way into the only Spanish service the church had all day. It was hard not to laugh at my own expense. God certainly does have a sense of humor. I spent the next hour trying to pick apart the sermon with the limited Spanish I learned in college. Most of the time, I read to myself in the English version of the Bible. An outsider again.

Frustrated and feeling more alone than before, I took my place in line to receive communion. When I got to the front, the pastor put the wafer in my hand and cup to my lips just as he had with every other person in line. I was now a few feet from the cross I felt so far from while at the back of the room. My eyes fell on the plaque attached to the wall beneath it. It was a biblical quotation, Hebrews 13:5, and my eyes were drawn to the words "I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee." I know, I thought in response to God's endless wonder. I guess I just needed a reminder that I am never alone in Him.

The decision to build a Jewish home was hard, but the putting it into practice was even harder. At times, I felt like a stranger in my own home. My faith, such a vital part of me, was not present there. I grieved for my old life, but not once did I ever question our decision. I made a promise, a vow to my husband. My love and my commitment were stronger than my self-pity. After that Easter morning, I began to think about my faith differently. My relationship with God was all my own. Although there are no crosses are on my wall to bear witness to my faith and no Christmas tree present in the corner of my home, they are but symbols of my Christianity, not my relationship with God. No one is here to drag me to church as my mom did when I was a child; no one is here to encourage me on my path as a Christian like my peers in youth group. I actually have to take responsibility for my own faith, find my own way through this maze of religion and form my own connection with God. This was a major crossroads in the way I felt about our decision. I am giving my husband a gift, one he says is the most meaningful I could ever give him and the Jewish community. I was also giving myself a gift, peace in my heart to make room for my relationship with God.

Some of our family and friends still may question our decision and doubt our commitment, but we don't. We also don't pretend to know every feeling and every answer to every situation we may come across in our marriage. Children are an unknown frontier and there are many more lifecycles and milestones in our future. Team Morgenstern, our marriage's alter ego, will face them like we have every other … with willingness to communicate honestly about our needs and respect for the other's faith. Religious differences aside, isn't that what every marriage needs to succeed anyway?

My husband has become more vigilant about acknowledging my holidays over the years since that Easter. A "Happy Easter" said every year, and Christmas spent with my family is his way of showing his support and is more than enough for me. There are still no crosses on my walls or any Christmas trees in my house, but they do reside in my heart.

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday.

Cassie Havel Morgenstern is a writer from Atlanta.

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