They had me at ham.
As my first Christmas with my fiance’s Italian Catholic family approached, Justin’s mom Julie called from her New Orleans home to warn us about the colossal cast of characters coming to Justin’s uncle and aunt’s Christmas Eve party. Just as Justin began to try to explain to me, an only child from a tiny Jewish family, who these supposed relatives were, Julie moved on to the subject of dinner.
“And Uncle John wants to know if she eats ham,” she said tentatively.
“Who?” said Justin, the faces of vaguely familiar aunts and cousins bobbing in his mind alongside slabs of lunchmeat.
“Cara, of course,” she said, laughing. “Uncle John wants to roast a ham and wants to know if Cara eats pork. He knew that can be a Jewish thing.”
“A Jewish thing?” I thought, as Justin gleefully relayed the question, to which he knew the simple answer. Had they got me wrong. The least of my worries about being in a predominately Catholic area of the country for Hanukkah was that I might have to eat ham–though it’s not my favorite meat.
Although not the most religiously significant holiday, Hanukkah had always held a dear place in my heart as a time for connection. In college, I, a relaxed Reform Jew, invited a dozen diverse friends over for Hanukkah feasts every year. I introduced them to the stories, taught them how to play dreidel, and shared the decadence of latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (donuts). Hanukkah was the first Jewish holiday I shared with Justin after we began living together. We bought a new menorah to commemorate our union and cooked crisp latkes and sweet brisket using my late bubbie Bea’s revered recipes. Justin, who was raised Catholic but is now agnostic (I call him an “honorary Jew”), enthusiastically learned the prayer and helped me light the candles.
So, in Louisiana, a state that prizes the Catholic tradition of parishes over modern-day counties and that seems to welcome diversity as long as people stay within their own communities, I doubted that my Hanukkah would resonate at all in the shadow of the family’s holly, jolly Christmas. Still, I recognized that since Hanukkah and Christmas overlapped last winter, I had the perfect opportunity to start intermingling the two religions of our families, and I optimistically forged ahead.
Viewing myself as a modern-day Jewish nomad, I packed the purse-friendly gold menorah I had dragged from dorm to dorm during my boundless college years and hoped I could add a little Adonai to the family’s angels and tinsel.
I had to ease into it. One day, Julie showed us the elaborate Christmas light sculptures displayed in the city park’s Celebration in the Oaks. That evening, I lit the menorah to little fanfare, simply saying the prayer to myself after we all had a festive meal out among the Christmas revelers.
Another day, we walked along the Mississippi River, the boardwalk draped in Christmas finery and teeming with street performers playing jazz versions of carols. At the mall, Julie ducked into a store selling a ragtag assortment of Christmas tree ornaments, everything from creches to crawfish. Julie fawned over sets of figurines she and Justin used to place under the tree when he was young. As they reminisced about their collection, I sighed in a corner, remembering the fun of decorating for Hanukkah. I lit the menorah that night as if I were lighting a beacon to my memories.
Fortunately, I convinced Julie that I could teach her how to cook a traditional Hanukkah meal later that week. I happily accompanied Justin and her to a bustling Jewish market to buy brisket, potatoes and other ingredients. That night we laughed, compared recipes for holiday treats, and grew closer together. I felt more comfortable on Christmas Eve because of that connection, wishing “Merry Christmas” to dozens of Justin’s relatives and family acquaintances. Many remembered to wish me a “Happy Hanukkah.” Although I was out-numbered, I started to feel more a part of the family, even in the shadow of their eight-foot Christmas tree.
Two nights later, to my chagrin, I mistakenly left my menorah in another purse when we went to visit Julie’s cousin Betsy and her family. They had delicate white lights framing their front door and a humble tree. As we headed toward the table for a robust Italian meal, Justin joked about my forgotten menorah. Betsy frowned sympathetically and jumped up from the table. She returned with a menorah half the size of the one I had left behind. Fortunately, Betsy’s son Martin’s Catholic school had passed out pocket-sized menorahs earlier that week to discuss Hanukkah, and Betsy welcomed my tradition into her dining room. Rather than miss my festival of lights, we watched the candles burn brightly together as we warmed our stomachs with Betsy’s wonderful homemade minestrone.
My heart also felt warm knowing that we could comfortably share our traditions, no matter our personal beliefs or preference for ham or brisket.