Of Crucifixes, Latkes, and Overcoming Stereotypes

By Jennifer Pacquette


In Ted’s parents’ home, I picture the horror my Jewish grandparents might have felt, seeing me beneath the kitchen crucifix. Even the little cross Ted wore, quietly tucked under his shirt, inspired nauseated uneasiness in me. I rejected it long before he decided to convert, but made it clear I was rejecting the symbol, not him, and especially not his family.

Though my first visits to his parents were uncomfortable, I knew I’d have to be as nice as possible. I sent thank-you notes, Christmas gifts, even a Mother’s Day card, hoping to build towards some kind of mutual understanding. They might not be thrilled by my faith, I thought, but at the very least, I could help reassure them that they wouldn’t lose him.

Ironically, Ted’s father, who was originally Protestant, had converted to Catholicism to get married. He is non-practicing, but Ted’s mother attends Mass daily, and fills her home with statues and pictures. Saying she’s “not thrilled” by my faith would be putting it very mildly. Of Ted’s three siblings, two had been married in big Catholic ceremonies; I’m sure his mother had expected a similar wedding for him.

None of his family knew much about Judaism when I met them, except that it was the religion Jesus had come to replace. “We’ve had Jews in the family before,” Ted said, when we were first dating. Months later, he admitted they’d been non-observant. Shabbat (the Sabbath) and kashrut (Jewish dietary observance) seemed painfully archaic to him at first, and he knew his family would feel the same.

Here in Toronto, even non-Jews know about holidays and customs. To Ted and his family in Ottawa, everything would be new–including “basics” like fasting on Yom Kippur and eating matzah (unleavened bread) on Passover.

Also new to Ted was the idea that his cross wasn’t universally perceived as a symbol of love and peace. He defended it, his spiritual umbilical cord, when I said it was the armband of a Jew-killer. “When they showed it to my ancestors,” I said, crying, “they said, ‘convert or die.'” How could I let its slithering black cord strangle fifty generations of Jewish voices? When Ted kissed me while wearing it, I felt snarling fangs barking at my sweating Jewish heels, Cossacks laughing all the way to confession. But when he removed it, Ted seemed lost, alienated from God.

Seeing his pain, I wondered: could I possibly come to understand, if not love, the cross? I began to immerse myself in Catholicism. Before Ted, my only experience with Catholics had been neighborhood girls chanting, “You killed our God.” The Church had renounced that doctrine, but news travels slowly.

When they weren’t taunting, these girls would show off lacy Communion dresses, tell Sunday school stories I’d absorb with the morbid fascination I’d later feel learning about periods and contraception. Gory Jesus paintings hung over their parents’ beds. Like staring at those paintings, I knew without asking that studying Christianity was forbidden . . . but now I ventured over that line. Finally, after months of reading, I told Ted, “Take me to church.”

In church with him that one time, I felt like an alien. Had attending shul (synagogue) with me been this awkward for him? He genuflected, touched holy water. So odd, scandalous: his private Catholicism, suddenly out in the open. That week happened to be Palm Sunday; I cringed through the infamous deicide. “Crucify him!” the Jews cried, and the priest mumbled in clumsy Hebrew, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?” [from the Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”]

It took a while to get over the pain of that Sunday, but gradually, anger gave way to understanding. Through my writing, I met Catholics who acknowledge our difficult shared past. But while my appreciation of Catholicism grew, so did my desire for a Jewish marriage. After one lonely Yom Kippur, I worried he would never share this part of my life.

But as I had learned about Catholicism, Ted had begun studying Judaism. He realized that most of what he had learned about Judaism was a distortion. Up-close, it wasn’t the dead faith he’d heard about. Jews weren’t rule-bound automatons after all. He decided to begin the process of conversion, yet he worried that he’d never encounter God in Judaism, that he would always feel “a little bit Catholic.”

Even now, over a year into the process, he has days when Judaism seems within reach, but many others when it seems utterly unattainable. And even the best of days can be marred by family interference. His mother regularly mails him tracts about the Virgin Mary or the meaning of the Trinity. And phone conversations with his family can turn painful unless they all stick to neutral subjects.

While Ted’s father won’t interfere with his journey, he’s rarely supportive. Other family members also take that “concerned neutral” tack. His sister seems pleased with our relationship, but worries about the many obligations “my” observant Judaism entails. Ted’s brother fears that Ted is too easily manipulated. I’m glad they care about their brother, but wish there were a simple way to calm them. It seems that time–and constant reassurance–are what is needed.

But reassurance is hard to convey long distance, and unfortunately, our first visit after he announced he was converting fell the day after Christmas. We brought menorahs, and Ted’s mother handed out gifts while I prepared kosher latkes (potato pancakes) under Jesus’ gaze. Everything went smoothly until candle-lighting . . . when Ted whipped out a kippah (yarmulke).

Putting on a kippah in front of your parents for the first time is like removing a band-aid–best done quickly. It hurts the same, but at least it’s over fast. On the kippah went, but almost as quickly, Ted’s mother spun around and retreated to the den.

While Ted chased her, I set up menorahs, face flushed. What else would go wrong?

But nothing did. Instead, Ted’s sister asked hesitantly: “What’s the difference between Hebrew and Aramaic?” I explained, adding that Aramaic was probably what Jesus spoke. Soon, my kids and even Ted were fielding questions about Hanukkah, Judaism, everything.

Finally, we lit the candles, and when we sang “Maoz Tsur” from transliterated song sheets, Ted’s nephew–an altar boy!–sang loudest. Later, Ted’s Scottish, Irish, French-Canadian family hungrily gobbled up latkes, and his sister asked for my chicken recipe. Ted’s mother didn’t come out that evening. He says he can understand her mindset, because he’s been there himself. And I understand as well the feeling of clinging to old grudges.

But this summer, I got a card: “Thank you for the lovely supper.” I have to hope this was a turning point. Just as I had to overcome obstacles to accept Ted’s heritage, she has a long journey ahead. But her note tells me that she, too, dreams of finding middle ground.

From the den, she must have heard us singing and thought about how it would feel to be part of the Jewish family Ted hopes to build someday. When that day comes, I will open my heart to her, crucifix and all. I pray she will do the same for me.


About Jennifer Pacquette

Jennifer Pacquette s freelance articles and essays have appeared in many publications, including The Jewish Week, Catholic Insight, and The Writer, and will be featured soon in Today's Parent and on CBC Radio. She is also a published fiction author. Read more from her in The Guide to Interfaith Jewish Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook (Jewish Lights), available at the InterfaithFamily.com Store.