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.