Home for the Holidays

By Beth Schwartzapfel

Published December 22, 2006, issue of December 22, 2006.
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With the endless violence in the Middle East, it would be easy to say that my girlfriend, Shereen, and I — she is Muslim; I am Jewish — represent the potential for world peace. But of course, like the world, our story is a little more complicated than that.

Shereen’s father, Ahmed, is from the historically Muslim city of Hyderabad, in the south of India. Any inter-religious struggle in his family’s past would have been with Hindus, not Jews. Shereen’s mother, Pat, is blond and blue-eyed, born and raised in Connecticut by an Irish Catholic father and a Hungarian American mother. Pat and her sister grew up getting their knuckles smacked by nuns. Although Pat converted to Islam when she married Ahmed, Shereen and her sisters were raised with both cultures, studying the Quran at Sunday school and getting stuffed bunnies from their grandmother on Easter.

I grew up attending a Reform synagogue in suburban New Jersey. Which is to say, I derived most of my Jewish identity from cultural, not religious, observance. The highlight of Passover was banging the table while singing “Had Gadya” enthusiastically and with breakneck speed, to the exclusion of the less entertaining portions of the Seder. When I came out at 15, the Torah’s dictates on homosexuality were not part of the family conversation. We had a mezuza on our doorjamb, but only my Grandpa Sam kissed it on his way into the house. One of the defining characteristics of this particular brand of Judaism was that it was emphatically Not Christian. My Hebrew school teachers would upbraid those of my classmates who said, “I’m half-Jewish.” “You can’t be half-Jewish,” the teachers would reply. “You’re either Jewish, or you’re not.” When my family put an electric menorah in our window during Hanukkah, it was as much a defiant counterpoint to the neighborhood’s ubiquitous Christmas lights as it was a religious symbol.

You can imagine my relief, then, that the person with whom I wanted to spend my life was Not Christian. I was adamant that no home of mine ever would have a Christmas tree in it, and now I didn’t have to worry. Until I was invited to her parents’ house for Christmas. “What?” I said. “I thought you were Muslim!”

“We are, but my mom was raised Catholic,” Shereen said. “Christmas is something we always shared with my grandmother. What’s the big deal?”

It was a good question. Did it make me any less Jewish to share a holiday with my girlfriend and her family? During starry-eyed conversations about our imagined future, she and I had discussed both Arabic lessons and Hebrew school for our children. Why did it seem somehow more palatable for my hypothetical kids to participate in Muslim rituals than in Christian ones?

Shereen hypothesized that part of my disdain for All Things Christmas had to do with my identity as an outsider, a nonconformist. I derived pleasure from being the minority in a dominant culture, besieged by people who earnestly wished me a Merry Christmas; it was enough to make me want to appropriate one of the gay movement’s touchstone rallying cries — “Don’t Assume I’m Straight” — only with a slightly different wording: “Don’t Assume I’m Christian!” I had to admit that my righteous indignation did feel good at times. “Don’t worry,” Shereen said. “With two moms, our kids will have enough to make them feel different.”

I went to Shereen’s family’s house for Christmas that year, and I’ve gone for the seven years since. Pat makes dough for sugar cookies using her mother’s recipe, and then Shereen, her sisters and I use the cookie cutters to shape it into Christmas trees and holly sprigs, like they have always done. That first year, Pat also got out a handful of brand-new cookie cutters, shaped like dreidels, menorahs and Stars of David. She had picked them out for me, special. This has to be a first, I thought. The Jew and the Muslims making Christmas cookies in the shape of Hanukkah symbols. And although this was exactly the type of Jewish-people-coopting-Christmas-traditions-so-they-don’t-feel-left-out thing that might have driven me crazy in the past — like those families that string blue-and-white Christmas lights on their houses and call them “Hanukkah lights” — I decided to roll with it.

Last year, for Hanukkah, Shereen gave me a beautiful handmade cast-iron menorah. Each of the nine little candle holders is an individual puzzle piece that comes apart and fits back together. I had admired it years ago, when she and I first moved in together. We couldn’t afford it at the time, and opted instead for a cheap aluminum one. I brought my new menorah to her family’s house, and, after we made Christmas cookies, I scrawled out an English transliteration of the Hanukkah prayers so that we all could light candles together. Her whole family stumbled earnestly through them — her dad, with his Urdu accent, making out the Hebrew words written in English letters.

This past summer, Shereen and I had a small commitment ceremony at her family’s home, where we shared stories and exchanged rings. We still can’t agree about Christmas, though. With this year’s holiday season approaching, she recently tacked the following P.S. onto an e-mail: “I love Christmas trees. Now that I’ve gotten you to marry me, I can come clean and tell you that I intend to have one.”

We’ll see about that. But if we do, at least we’ll string it with Hanukkah lights.

Beth Schwartzapfel is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She is working toward a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the New School.

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