The First High Holy Days
“It really would be nice, dear, if you would join us for the High Holy Days.” We sat on Bernice’s plush amber sectional in her Upper East Side apartment, enjoying a glass of wine before dinner. The chocolate-brown living room walls set off her collection of artwork, the color both elegant and unpredictable, a reflection of the woman who lived there. I plastered a smile on my face and raised my eyebrows, an automatic response I used in uncomfortable situations. Every autumn, when Michael took a sick day from work, donned a suit and went to synagogue with his mother, his only description of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services was “long.” Of course I had never volunteered to go. Now, within my first year of marriage, my grace period had ended. Michael’s mother had just invited me to temple.
I quickly considered the possible repercussions of declining the invitation. Michael and I had been married just five months, and I had agreed to raise our children Jewish. Although far from starting a family, if I refused the invitation to attend synagogue, I might appear to have been in bad faith, not really interested in Michael’s religion.
For the three years that Michael and I had been together, Michael had been enjoying the perks of dating and marrying a Catholic girl — most of them revolving around Christmas. He loved playing the collection of contemporary Christmas music he started, ranging from top-40 artists like Madonna to jazz greats like Count Basie and Lou Rawls. He devoured my homemade Christmas snickerdoodles and my sister Chrissy’s annual care package of Christmas cookies as well. But, most of all, he loved Christmas trees.
“It’s a whole new way of expressing myself,” he beamed, standing in a forest of decorated evergreens on the fifth floor of Macy’s. “Let’s have a theme tree this year. How about these? These Christmas ducks are cute!” We later learned that the “ducks” were, in fact, representative of the traditional Christmas goose. But Michael loved our “ducks” just the same, and established a new tradition of a fowl-themed tree.
Ever since we had moved into our first apartment together two years earlier, we had purchased our tree from a corner tree lot, dragging it home through the snow and maneuvering it into the elevator to our floor. We hosted Christmas parties, Michael greeting our guests with gusto, offering them their choice of wine or eggnog, stacking his assortment of Christmas CDs to rotate throughout the night. The only caveat Michael had in celebrating Christmas was forbidding a wreath on our apartment door. “It would advertise that we have a Christian home, and we don’t.” So I felt it was important that I, in turn, show an active interest in Michael’s predominant holiday — the High Holy Days. Plus there was another level of concern in my decision about attending temple. If I didn’t accept my first invitation to synagogue, I would also risk insulting my mother-in-law, for whom I had great respect. Michael was Bernice’s only son. I was sure that before Michael proposed to me, she carried an image of her future daughter-in-law as a nice Jewish girl. Yet she never treated me as something less than she had expected. Bernice had welcomed me into her family, not just as her son’s wife, but as a daughter. “Okay…” I feigned a smile. “It’ll be nice.”
A modest Catholic girl from the Midwest, married to Jewish man from Manhattan, Sally had plenty of culture shocks to overcome living marrying into a Jewish family. From her first boisterous Seder dinner, through encounters with rabbis that left her feeling alienated, to the warmth of Jewish friends and family who drew her in, Sally’s relationship with Judaism was a rocky one.
It wasn’t until seven years into her marriage that she discovered the spirituality in Judaism, and started her intriguing road to conversion. She studied under the tutelage of a rabbi, learned Hebrew from a Holocaust survivor, and found herself easing into the temple community. Woven into the story is Sally’s evolved relationship with Bernice, her Upper East Side Manhattan Jewish mother-in-law, whose unexpected death offers a particular poignancy to her story.