Christmastime has always been unusually stressful for me. I don’t “celebrate” it, of course, but I’ve consistently managed to find my life impacted by people close to me who do.
See, my grandmother had something of a sour taste in her mouth concerning her son—my father’s— conversion to Judaism. She never called my mother by her Hebrew name, instead purposefully referring to her by the English name she never used outside of a legal document. In fact, my grandmother and grandfather would visit our house accompanied by copious amounts of Roy Rogers or McDonald’s or Burger King, despite the fact that my mother was more than a decent cook; and there was always food in the house to be served. My grandparents never finished even a quarter of the fast food they brought over and mostly left it open so that the scent filled our house. In the end we always ended up having to throw out tons of trayf that should never have crossed our threshold in the first place. It was quite the passive-aggressive endeavor.
But one particular visit stands out in my mind as clear as if it were yesterday: that first and toxic holiday encounter at my grandmother’s house in Queens when I was three years old.
On Christmas weekend, I went with my parents and sister—the only sibling I had at the time—to my grandmother’s house. When we got there, my grandmother offered me a piece of candy. Something peppermint, I recall. But it wasn’t kosher so I politely refused it. She made a face like she smelled something rancid. “Boy, I’m your grandmother!” she growled. “If I say you can eat it, you can eat it!”
That was the wrong thing to say to this particular Orthodox, Chabad-Lubavitch child, who was raised on stories of Jewish resistance and religious persecution, defiance in the face of Roman occupation and pogroms in Europe, massacres during the Crusades. Suddenly my grandmother was the Syrian-Greeks and I was the Maccabees. Jews had died in the name of preserving their faith, I thought to myself. So let’s do this, Grandma. I was about to do all our martyrs proud. I was about to do my mother’s line proud. I was—
“Go ahead, said my mom, who is Orthodox. “Eat it.”
I turned and saw my dad looking on with resignation. My mother—the issuer of the command—watched by his side, grimly.
“But…” I was dumbfounded.
“It’s okay,” my mom reassured me. “Just go ahead and eat it.”
So I did. The candy resembled a round ball, so I couldn’t just gulp it down. Instead I chewed it as quickly as possible and swallowed it even faster—and with it my pride. Even now, as I write this, I can feel my heart speeding up as I relive that distressing moment: eating my first non-kosher food.
The visit ended soon after that. And it’d be years before we’d visit my grandmother again. And when we did, it was never during the holidays.
This experience has stayed with me, and it rears its head every Christmas. It made me wary of—but didn’t deter me from—the idea of marrying a convert. I didn’t want my children to have to be subjected to the struggle of keeping a balance between respecting their potentially non-Jewish grandparents, and keeping their faith. This is one of the reasons why I married a Jewish girl. With a Jewish mother…and Catholic father.
So far we’ve navigated our religious differences far better than they were ever handled by my parents and my grandmother growing up. Which, given that my father-in-law is heavily religious—he spends every Sunday at church and observes Christmas as a religious day—is an amazing feat to me. Or maybe it isn’t, and I’m just very unused to people actually respecting other people’s religious beliefs, mutually.
However, I still feel a tinge of uneasiness every Christmas. When we go to visit my wife’s father, I wonder: Will the same kind scenario I experienced as a three-year-old—being told to eat unkosher candy—turn up again in the form of my non-Jewish father-in-law eventually asking my daughter, “Hey, come to Mass with me?” If he were to invite her to church, I wonder if it would even register to him as a disrespectful question, as it does to me. After all, the religious ideology that my wife, daughter, and I perform in our Orthodox household is a very different one than my father-in-law was exposed to in his interfaith Reform marriage. Both my wife and I do not think it’s appropriate for our daughter to attend church. But will my father-in-law feel pushed out of a relationship with his grandchildren because his daughter has chosen his wife’s Judaism instead of his Catholicism? If we come up on Christmas, does that count as celebrating it with him? Is this a halachic issue? If we come up the day before, does my father-in-law still feel like we celebrated the holidays with him?
What I do know is that I’m not going to let my anxieties interfere with my daughter’s—and future children’s—relationship with their grandfather. But there’s always going to be a piece of me looking over my shoulder.
MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.