A Holly, Jolly Hanukah
by Magin LaSov Gregg
photos by Erick Gibson Aton mebel
I never thought I’d decorate a Christmas tree. I’m a Jew who grew up celebrating Hanukah. Until the age of 10, I didn’t know a creche from a crucifix. Yet, last November, I impulsepurchased a 9-foot plastic evergreen from Costco, then bedecked our $300 tannenbaum with twinkly-eyed elves. “No one can match the zeal of a convert,” said my husband, Carl, as I maneuvered a crocheted angel to a lofty branch.
He was one to talk. This is a man who on Friday nights carries Shabbat candlesticks to our dining room table and reminds me to sing the Hebrew blessings. If, God forbid, I fail to make French toast out of our leftover challah, he doesn’t let me forget it. I suppose I should mention here that Carl was a Baptist minister for the first five years of our marriage. He now serves a Unitarian Universalist congregation.
How we fell in love remains a mystery, given that Carl grew up in the South Carolina midlands, where his Southern Baptist Sunday school teachers instructed him in the moral superiority of Christians to all other people. I, on the other hand, was raised in the Baltimore suburbs by my Jewish mother. Twice a week she sent me to Hebrew school, where I rose to the ranks of my Temple youth group’s vice president. True to cultural cliché, I grew up believing I’d marry a doctor, lawyer, or accountant –– all Jewish, it went without saying.
The cosmos had other plans.
When I was 21 my mother died. One night she went to sleep. The next morning, she didn’t awaken. I lost the parent who’d raised me, the one who loved me absolutely. Her death meant a lot of things. It meant no one cared if it was my birthday or if I needed a ride home from the airport. It meant nothing happened for a reason. It meant I was free to create the life I wanted. Not the one I’d been told all my life I should want.
Around the time of my grief-fueled, existential crisis, Carl had an awakening of his own. He studied religion and philosophy in college, where his childhood beliefs unraveled against a world full of compassionate people who hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and personal savior. By the time he met me, after he’d graduated from seminary and taken his first pulpit, he viewed my Judaism as a “plus.” Never did Carl ask me to convert. Never did I volunteer.
People assume our home must be full of religious strife, especially holiday drama. Don’t get me wrong. Our home is not without its turmoil. If you asked my dear husband for two adjectives to describe me, he’d start with “neurotic.” But we don’t fight about religion. Neither of us presumes to hold a monopoly on truth, and we respect each other’s individual searches for identity and meaning.
Thanks to the holy-roller stereotypes of television and film, our relationship was more complicated in its early years. My friends and family envisioned my new boyfriend as a Bible-thumping Jerry Falwell type, complete with potbelly and televangelist hair. When Carl proposed and agreed to raise our hypothetical children as Jews, no one knew what to make of us.
So far, so good. Amen.
Because we celebrate more holidays than the average one-faith family, we’ve found an unexpected benefit of our multi-faith home: We have more candles to light, more reasons to eat decadent food, more presents to open. This is not to say we support gluttony or greed; but, during the dark cold days of December we’ll take any opportunity to bring more glitz into our lives and to remember that hope flickers eternal.
We needed all the hope we could get when I decorated our Christmas tree last year. Carl’s mother had begun chemotherapy for breast cancer, and I missed my own mother like hell. In the face of these grim truths, we sat on the couch, hands entwined, and watched our tree shine its light to the street. Neither of us have all the answers on God or an afterlife or why horrible things happen to wonderful people.
But we both believe that love must have something to do with it all.