Jewish Plus Christmas


When I tell others that my father is Catholic, most non-Jewish people say, “Oh, so you’re half-Jewish.” Most Jewish people say, “Your mother is Jewish? So you’re Jewish!” I prefer the latter interpretation.  

I’ve never thought of myself as half-anything. My sisters and I were raised Jewish. It was important to my mother, and terrifying to my paternal grandmother who secretly baptized me in the kitchen sink. We celebrated every holiday Hallmark makes a card for, but attended Jewish Sunday school and had Bat Mitzvahs. Today I prefer to celebrate only the Jewish holidays, but I still go home for Christmas–it’s part of our tradition.

I’ve never asked my parents how they made this arrangement, or if it is difficult for my father to watch his daughters embrace a faith different from his own. My father does not attend church, and my mother does not attend synagogue. Neither one of them has been particularly connected to their faith as long as I can remember, but they have always been supportive of our decisions about faith. We grew up on the East side of Detroit in a community with few Jews. I never experienced discrimination, but encountered plenty of curiosity about my Jewish heritage. I laugh now about how little I knew then, when I was considered the expert.

My mother loves Christmas. It took me a long time to understand how this petite Jewish woman from the Bronx got so excited about a haphazardly decorated pine tree. But the joy of Christmas for her is being able to give her children gifts she has purchased with care. It has nothing to do with the birth of the Christian savior, and everything to do with motherly love. Some Christians think this is not in the spirit of the holiday, but I believe it truly embraces it. To my mother, Christmas is about love, giving, and sharing. That is the way I look at the Christian holidays we celebrate now, as well as a way to show respect for my father’s faith.

When I was in middle school, preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, my father became the president of our Sunday school. In our small Jewish community with a number of interfaith families, nobody thought this was strange. Nobody even took offense to his joking that he would “soon have those books turned around the right way!” Several years later he even became a partner in a Jewish law firm.

Our arrangement was not strange to me, but once I entered high school I realized I wanted more. I sought out youth groups on the other side of town, but then became too involved in my school activities to participate. I told my parents I wanted my Girl Scout Gold Award project to be a capital campaign for a synagogue in our town, and they pointed out that we were doing just fine using the Unitarian Church for services. I started to read the books piled on my shelves from my Bat Mitzvah to feed my hunger for Jewish knowledge.

When I started my college search, I knew I wanted a school with an active Jewish population so that I could finally address my yearning for more Judaism in my life. I applied to twelve different universities and in the end chose the alma mater of my parents, Boston College.

BC may be a Jesuit Catholic institution, but it was where I finally found my Jewish niche. The Jewish community there is small, but active. I got involved in Hillel (a Jewish organization) and held every office in the club that was available over time–including a few I created myself. I started learning about Jewish values and the ways in which they intersected with my own values, such as family, education, and social responsibility. I started meeting Jewish students at other schools in Boston and attended national student conferences. I’ll never forget my first conference held by Hillel International. I walked into the hotel and saw more Jewish people than I had ever seen in my entire life. It was the beginning of my love affair with Hillel conferences. I just couldn’t get enough of these mass gatherings of Jewish students.

At BC, as when I was growing up, I was the expert on Judaism. My non-Jewish roommates and I lit the Shabbat, Sabbath, candles on Fridays. We held the annual Hanukkah party in my dorm room, breaking all kinds of fire codes. When I became president of Hillel my junior year, I became the voice and representative of the Jewish students of BC. It was a lot of responsibility, but I loved it.

After college, I moved to Washington, D.C. and worked for a Jewish organization. I had a supportive group of Jewish friends and colleagues who taught me about different holidays, traditions and teachings that are all new to me. In that office, I was considered the expert on Catholicism.

I am choosing to create my own tradition, and it is rooted in my Jewish identity.