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My journey between Christmas and Hanukkah

Holly Rizzuto Palker with her family in 2015.

Holly Rizzuto Palker with her family in 2015. Photo Credit: Photo by Jordan Elyse Rosner

This year, Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah coincide, which is very rare. My family is excited.

The moment I kissed Jeff’s freckled mouth on the dance floor of a Washington, D.C., club, I was electrified. He was a cute frat brother in a backwards New York Yankees cap — the epitome of a ’90s Jewish boy from Kings Park, Long Island. I was an Italian-Catholic girl from Staten Island in my freshman year at American University.

“We’re both from islands,” I told him. We both “tawked” with funny accents, since our parents were from Brooklyn and the Bronx. Our families shared a collective love for food. He thought I was Jewish.

“I’m Catholic. My name’s Holly because I was born near Christmas,” I said.

It was our first date and I felt worried he wouldn’t call the next day, but he did.

So what if my mom had a shrine to Mary in our living room, and my all-girls Catholic high school sponsored a senior trip to Rome to see the Vatican. Jeff’s parents had more menorahs than a Judaica store and he never shut up about his teen trip to Israel. Up until Jesus, we share the same religion, right?

After college I moved to Los Angeles to be the next Alyssa Milano, while he went to a D.C. law school to become the next Alan Dershowitz. We maintained a long-distance relationship for four long years, and each time we visited one another, we fell in love all over again.

Once, Jeff attended Easter Mass with me in a Beverly Hills church. It was the perfect time to lure him over to the Christian side. I pointed out that Frank Sinatra’s funeral had recently been held there, as if that would seal the deal.

“I can’t give up my religion; it’s my culture,” he said. “Don’t you get it?”

I wanted to “get it” so bad. Instead we broke up because it seemed easier.

After a few months, we got back together and Jeff persuaded me to return to New York City, where he took a job. I agreed, though nothing about our faith had been resolved.

Driving across the country together, we sat at the top of the Grand Canyon, mesmerized.

“I feel small,” he said. “All the things we worry about don’t matter.”

“Like which God we believe in?” I said.

I wanted to ask, but couldn’t. If we broached the topic, our conversations deteriorated into fights. So, we avoided the issue.

After he proposed, we set the date, ignoring statistics about frequent divorces in dual-faith marriages. We attended an interfaith Pre-Cana course required by the Catholic Church. A priest and a rabbi officiated at our wedding at a New Jersey catering hall. My mother cried because it wasn’t the church service she’d hoped for, but at least it was an even split.

After our first child, stress over the issue of religion mounted. So, we pulled a “King Solomon” and divided everything down the middle. A priest blessed her and a rabbi gave her a Hebrew name: Shmuela. But I still longed for a baptism. It felt very uneasy.

Jeff’s job moved us to London while I was pregnant with my second child. During the seventh month, I delivered. I was terrified something was wrong with my preemie when the doctor suggested a brain scan.

I begged God, “Please let him be healthy,” as I had a panic attack in the neonatal intensive care unit.

Once the scan ended, we saw that my son had no visible complications. I’d just prayed my heart out and my maker listened. I felt immense gratitude.

I held our fragile miracle on my chest, skin to skin, the next morning outside of his incubator, and I had an epiphany: I knew that my God didn’t care how I welcomed Him into this baby’s life, as long as the door was open. All I needed for my children was peace in our family and a path to spirituality. It would be a huge sacrifice for me to give my offspring one solid religious identity as Jews rather than splitting both, but sacrifices were always looked upon favorably by Catholics.

In the beginning, it was difficult, and even humiliating, to be the one that caved in our marriage. I felt like the loser. At times, I resented my husband and Judaism, especially when we attended a Catholic wedding or christening for a family member. It was too difficult to tell my family that I chose bar mitzvahs for my bambinos over baptisms, so we didn’t.

Over time, I realized I’d been holding onto my rosary so tightly because I feared giving up too much of myself. The truth is, my Catholicism provided me spiritual fulfillment, but it didn’t define me. My mouthwatering marinara sauce, color-coordinated Christmas tree, and obsession with “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the musical, were all parts of me that didn’t change.

When we moved back to the States, we joined our local Reform temple. Its members accepted our children as Jewish, although I didn’t convert. I became pregnant with our third child.

“BIM, bam, bim, bim, bim, bam,” I sang on Shabbat Fridays during toddler time. I joined the Women’s Association and learned how to play mah-jongg.

Jeff and I have been married 14 years, and although it hasn’t always been easy, so far we’ve beaten the statistics. My children attend Hebrew school, and through them I learn about tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of healing the world. I see better why it was so difficult for my husband to raise the kids outside of his faith — the beliefs and culture are so tightly woven.

“Are the kids gonna be Jewish?” my mom asked one day.

“Yes,” I answered with a knot in my throat.

“I thought so,” she said and gave me a hug. Telling her was easier than I’d imagined.

My Italian famiglia and Jeff’s Jewish mishpokhe are looking forward to Dec. 24 this year, very excited to celebrate both our traditional Italian Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah candle-lighting in one meshugeneh night around my gorgeous tree.

Holly Rizzuto Palker lives in Short Hills, New Jersey.

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