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Dec 15 2011

Christmas Made Me a Better Jew

By at 2:12 pm

blue christmas treeFor most of my life, Christmas was spent at my grandmother’s two-family house in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. She was Roman Catholic, and she made homemade pizza on Christmas Eve. We’d devour it at the kitchen table after accompanying her to midnight mass. Her home was decorated with tinsel and a tiny Christmas tree that she placed atop a card table in the enclosed porch at the front of her house. Like the electric menorah at our house in the suburbs, her tree sat in the window for all to see. Its tiny lights seemed to whisper, a person who cares about a holiday lives here.

The specifics: I was raised Jewish. Completely, totally, My-dad-is-a-Rabbi Jewish. My mom’s a convert to Judaism, and a super involved Jewish educator. But despite that, despite my Bat Mitzvah and conservative Jewish Day School education, despite years spent living in Israel, fluent Hebrew, Shabbat dinners and sukkah building —I am sure that I learned more about being a good Jew from my Roman Catholic grandmother and our time spent celebrating the holidays together, than I did from any Talmud class I took.

Agnes D’Amico, a faithful churchgoer until she became too old to leave the house, sprinkled grated cheese in her non-kosher chicken soup and tried to serve us Italian bread on Passover. And even though she’s been gone for ten years, each December, as the 25th approaches, I miss spending Christmas with her.

There were many years when Hanukkah and Christmas overlapped. When that happened, we piled into the blue Pontiac with the bumper sticker that read “Hang in there, Shabbos is coming” and we’d take along our menorah and ingredients for latkes. Agnes liked latkes. She liked matzah balls too. She liked to sing along at our Passover Seders and eat matzah and drink wine.

When my mother introduced Agnes to my father’s Jewish parents—my Grandmother Rose who came over from Ukraine on a boat when she was 6 and my Brooklyn-bred Grandfather Milton—Agnes brought along a challah. When my mother told Agnes she was converting to Judaism, Agnes told my mother that all she wanted for her was happiness. When my mother told Agnes we were moving to Israel for a year, Agnes asked us to bring her back a photo of Jerusalem. We brought her back a mural of the Old City, and she hung it in a prominent spot above her front door. She didn’t hang it there because Jerusalem was meaningful for her as a Christian, but rather, because it was meaningful to us, as Jews, and therefore it meant something to her, too.

I don’t recall ever asking my parents why we helped my grandmother celebrate Christmas. I knew why. She was our family, and she would not be left to celebrate alone. My grandfather died when my mother was young. Other siblings and cousins celebrated Christmas with their families. My aunt lived far away. Agnes liked to stay in Brooklyn, close to home. She didn’t fly. But we didn’t need an excuse. There was nowhere else we wanted to be.

And Christmas with Grandma Agnes was so happy. After mass we came home to her kitchen and tuned the tiny radio to a station that played carols from the ’50’s. We set up Pokeno boards around the table and bet with pennies. We gave her gifts wrapped in red paper and she gave us gifts wrapped in blue. Our schnauzer barked in the yard. Agnes pulled my father’s long beard and begged him to cut it just a bit shorter. When we slept over, I shared a small room with her, and when the lights when out, I’d listen as she said her prayers.

Agnes never questioned who we were, or whom my mother had chosen to be. She loved my father as if he were her own son, and loved me, her Jewish grandchild, with my Hebrew name and my Jewish boyfriends. She was a gracious and generous host and a simple and accepting soul. She never angered when we refused the chicken soup with cheese, she sat in the front pew during my Bat Mitzvah service, and toasted “L’Chaim” at the party that followed.

As I continue to consider what my Jewish legacy is, and what legacy I will leave for my children, I realize that maybe I have learned something from the Talmud after all. The Talmud teaches, “Jews are the compassionate children of compassionate parents.”

In Jordana’s post, she eloquently asserts, “as Jews, we are the inheritors of an amazing intellectual, religious, ethical, and historical legacy, thousands of years old.” And I agree. But I am also the inheritor of a legacy of compassion, learned at the kitchen table at 21-19 74th Street. Celebrating Christmas with my big-hearted grandmother taught me how to be kind, and how to love, despite the starkest differences. For many years I celebrated Hanukkah and I also helped Agnes celebrate Christmas, and I’m sure this made me not just a better Jew, but also, a better human being.


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