Elm Place, where I grew up, was as religiously diverse as any other little street in any little town. In its single-family homes, each built on about a fifth of an acre, were scattered equal numbers of Jews and Christians; our block also had one Buddhist family and, for a short time, a Muslim household.
We were friends. Mothers were on borrowing terms -- anyone could ask for the loan of a cup of sugar or six slices of bread for sandwiches. Children played on one another’s stoops and wandered in and out of kitchens for cookies, milk, or, if the household income allowed for such a luxury, Coca-Cola. Families shared information, recipes, gardening tips -- everything, in fact, except religion.
When it came to religious observance, we each went our way -- Catholics to Mass, Jews to temple, Protestants to their own services. The Buddhist and Muslim families, of course, had their rituals, but it is a measure of our separateness that I do not even know when or where they went.
My siblings and I were curious. When our friends Ina and David Feldman began the eight days of Hanukkah, we would peek through the Feldmans’ porch windows to see the candles of the beautiful brass menorah with its singing-bird design. None the wiser about the real meaning of this holiday, we moved on to examine the Bosses’ and Hellers’ windows. Mrs. Boss and Mrs. Heller were quite avant-garde -- our other Jewish neighbors frowned a little on their custom of stringing colored lights outside their homes in December -- but both women were otherwise traditional in their observance of the holy days. We never saw a tree through those windows.
As I grew older, I became more and more inquisitive about how and why we all spent the holidays in such varied ways. I loved pomp and circumstance and hated the thought of missing out on any celebration just because of a difference in creed. I studied other religions, learning how each had its rituals complete with trappings, symbols, and even colors.
When I was a child, the separateness of our celebrations extended to weddings. There were no interreligious marriages on our street. But when I married Andy Stewart, who was Jewish, my family cheerfully included him in our holiday celebrations, and I looked forward to being included in his family’s observances. As it happened, Andy and his family (except for his father) did not practice their religion. When our daughter, Alexis, was born, then, there was no question of choosing between faiths. We decided to raise her in no single religion but to educate her about all of them. We invented our own holiday rituals, and as time went on, they became very important to me.
Our holiday still begins with dinner on December 24: potato pancakes, applesauce, and homemade doughnuts filled with raspberry jam, a menu loosely based on Hanukkah traditions. On Christmas Day, we have a big lunch not unlike the dinners I had as a child. We attend no services; family gatherings have become the central holiday rituals, the cornerstones of our lives. Even if symbols are mixed and practices altered, tradition remains essential. And to me, the traditions that unite us, rather than divide us, are the most essential of all.
Holiday greetings to my neighbors of days gone by: the Blocks, McEvoys, Johnsons, Mendelsons; the Mauses, Ritchies, Allegris, Arnolds, Feldmans, and Jaffes; the Rebenacks, Bosses, Hellers, and Bukowskis.