Missing Christmas

I’m Jewish. When my Catholic grandmother died, so did the holiday.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

I haven’t done Christmas since December 2000. That’s almost 14 years with no tabletop plastic tree, no twinkling lights, no overdosing on candy canes till my teeth hurt, no listening to Dean Martin sing “Silent Night,” no stocking, no presents, no nothing.

I’m Jewish, and I guess this is the way it’s supposed to be. My mother, raised Catholic, converted to Judaism when she was 19, three years before she married my dad. It wasn’t a symbolic conversion done to placate my father’s family. She went all in. But still, every year until I was 23, I spent the holiday at my grandmother’s two-family house on 74th Street in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. She was Italian, and a widow. Her siblings celebrated Christmas with their families, in New Jersey and Queens and other tri-state locales. My aunt and her children lived far away. Without us—my mom and dad and two sisters—there would be no Christmas for Agnes. And so we lugged our latkes from the suburbs to Brooklyn, and we set up camp for the holiday.

While my friends from the Long Island Jewish Day School spent Christmas at the movies or eating Chinese food, I spent Christmas at St. Dominic’s, a Roman Catholic Church on Bay Parkway. The church smelled like incense and burning candles and my grandmother sat next to us and clutched her rosary beads in her knobby hands. When she kneeled, we sat erect in the pews, five Jews, utterly conspicuous. When she went up to receive communion, we stayed put.

“But what does the body of Christ taste like?” I’d implore, at 9 or 10 or 11 years old. “Like a wafer, Adina,” my mother would whisper back. “It tastes just like a wafer.” Then, for effect, she’d swat my elbow.

Back at my grandmother’s apartment, we’d make homemade pizza and play cards. I’d practice crossing myself in front of the mirror in her pink bathroom and fall asleep in a single bed in the spare room at the back of the house, mere feet from where my grandmother slept. I listened as she whispered her prayers to Jesus in the dark.

My grandmother died in the spring of 2000, and with her, my double life as a Jew who gets to do Christmas and eat pots of ziti with gravy on Sunday afternoons. When she died, I was living in Jerusalem, considering a permanent move to Israel. I didn’t come home for the funeral.

Soon after Agnes’ death, her brother-in-law Rocco passed away. Then Frances, Rocco’s wife, moved to Florida with her kids Monica and Lenny. Anna and Joel were long gone, so were Matt and Pat and Connie and Jimmy. Slowly, the D’Amico, Marino, and Arigo contingents had leached out of Brooklyn. They’d all ended up on Florida’s west coast (the “non-Jewish” coast, according to my Jewish friends).

My grandmother’s house on 74th Street was sold to a young Asian family. Gone was our Christmas home base, the house with the sign over the sink that read “Bless this little kitchen, Lord, and warm it with your love.” Gone was the shared driveway where my sisters played ball with the Urcioli kids. Gone was the bay window, where that plastic tabletop Christmas tree sat, its tiny fairy lights blinking at us as we walked up the front stoop.

When I eventually came back to the states, I joined my parents and sisters on Christmas so we could spend the day remembering my grandmother. We gathered in my parents’ kosher kitchen, the same place where we made hamantaschen every Purim. We baked “pig’s feet” cookies and listened to Julius LaRosa sing “Eh, Cumpari.” There were no actual pig feet baked into the cookies—they were S shaped like those Stella Doro cookies, anise-flavored and good for dunking in coffee. For some reason, though, when my grandmother baked them, she’d split the bottom and top of each S with a knife, so that it sort of resembled a pig’s hoof. Biting into that hoof, I always felt like I was getting away with something.

After that, life happened. I got married, had children. I lost my father. I left the city. I never had any reason to be in church. My life was now consumed by my dominant identities: parent, wife, daughter, sister, friend, Jew, New Yorker, writer, teacher, and so on. It wasn’t that I forgot my Italian heritage any more than my mother or sisters had, it’s just that I had no opportunity to live it.

Plenty of kids grow up in interfaith families, identifying as “both” religions, but that wasn’t the case with us. My parents were clear about the fact that we were Jewish, and spent much of their lives actively engaging in Jewish education and ritual.  We weren’t actually celebrating Christmas so much as we were helping my grandmother celebrate, they explained. The distinction was vague, but I think it made the holidays much less fraught for them and for us kids. We got to participate in Agnes’ world and explore it without shame or identity crises. When my grandmother died, though, I lost the easy access into that part of my heritage.  I reluctantly accepted invitations to join friends at Chinese restaurants on Christmas, and found that in some ways, my world was getting smaller.

Then last month, for the first time since the Christmas services of my youth, I found myself back in church. It was a windy Wednesday morning just before Thanksgiving and we gathered in the chapel at the St. Charles Resurrection Cemetery, in Farmingdale, N.Y., to say goodbye to Frances, the last surviving Italian relative from my grandmother’s generation. She had died a week before. She was 92.

When my sister and I ducked into the chapel, we were 15 minutes late. “Ah,” remarked the priest as we took our seats. “The lost lambs of God.” Then he said, “Let us pray.”

I can’t remember the dates of the Vietnam War, or poems I’ve tried to memorize, or addresses of places I’ve lived. And yet, I can call up the words to the Lord’s Prayer as if I said it every day. As Monica and Lenny bent their heads, the rest of us stared idly forward, conspicuous once again. I didn’t dare move my lips—I’m Jewish, I’m Jewish! I reminded myself, but the words were right there on the tip of my tongue.  

I turned, as the priest neared the end of the prayer, conscious of my mother’s presence. She was looking squarely at the floor. I imagined she was silently reciting the words by rote, too, willing her lips not to move. I wondered if she was thinking what I was thinking: that there’s something comforting in a recitation, in unison, and sitting shoulder to shoulder in a pew, and remembering how your life used to be.

“Children of Jesus!”

The priest was talking to all seven of us. “Tell me about our sister, Frances.”

When the service was over, we drove our cars to the graveside. The priest wasn’t with us now, and so we stood silently and watched as the gravediggers lowered Frances’s coffin into the ground. Then Monica turned to us. With no clergyperson to lead us, she wondered if maybe we’d recite the traditional Jewish prayer after death, the mourner’s kaddish. And so, in unison, at the St. Charles Roman Catholic cemetery on that Wednesday in November, my mother and sisters and I chanted that ancient prayer in Aramaic. When we finished, Monica nodded and yelled, “goodbye, mom!” And we turned away and walked off toward our individual cars.