Both of my parents were Jewish children of immigrants from Lithuania and Hungary. While my grandparents spoke Yiddish, and my aunts and uncles joined the temple in Boston, for some reason my parents didn't join the local temple when we moved to New Rochelle, New York when I was four.
We usually celebrated Passover. The highlight was the frenzied search for the $1 hidden with the afikomen -- a piece of matzo -- while stealing glances to see if Elijah had come to drink from his wine glass. He never showed. I loved toasted bagels with a schmear, I sprinkled my vocabulary with words like, "mashugana," and, "mensch," and I danced the hora with abandon.
But I was completely in the dark about my religion. I truly felt "in the dark" at Christmas, when in the car we'd pass houses with Christmas trees glowing inside and more lights in the front yard. I even had Santa lust for those inflatable, jolly St. Nicks on the lawn, or up on the rooftop with Rudolf.
There was nothing jolly about a menorah, especially when we frequently forgot to light it. I asked for a "Hanukkah bush." After all, one of my aunt and uncles had a decorated tree, adorned with lights and tinsel, and with presents for my two Jewish cousins under it. The answer was a firm, "no."
I ached to be a part of it -- of something. But I wasn't. Sadly, the only times I have been in a temple were for the funerals of my grandparents.
When I was 30, I had a book contract with Little, Brown to turn an article I had written for the New York Times Magazine into a book. Little Winners was published in 1983. I had embraced the achievement God.
That summer I was also training for the Mighty Hamptons Triathalon, scheduled for Labor Day weekend. The weekend before the triathlon, on a beastly 90 degree day, I ran the Great Bonac Road Race, a 10K race in East Hampton.
In the middle of the race, I looked over to the man running on my right. He looked like a Greek god, with a lovely mane of thick dark hair, dimples, warm brown eyes and an endearing smile. I pegged him for 45 years old, a craggy, corporate type and I guessed he was married with three children. (I was right on everything except him being married.)
We struck up a conversation. (I would soon discover that Howard's gift of gab was prodigious. He could talk anytime, anywhere, about anything.) At the finish line, Howard invited me to Big Olaf's, for ice cream, in Sag Harbor.
Howard was a lapsed Catholic and a managing director of Paine Webber. After our third date, he posed a question that fell somewhere between purely hypothetical and a marriage proposal: Would I get married in a church? He was, no doubt, testing the waters to see how Jewish I was.
A year later, Reverend Ted Smith, a Unitarian minister, married us. I'm not sure if Rev. Smith wore a cross around his neck, but I do remember that he wore a fertility symbol -- I noticed that -- and that he and his wife, who knew no one at the wedding, danced and shimmied until the party was over.
The fertility symbol worked: two years later, I was pregnant with our daughter, Lily. Howard then launched what I call, "The Episcopal Plot." He had attended Brooklyn Prep, a Jesuit prep school. Yet he had Episcopal leanings. He found out his good friend from Brooklyn Prep, John Greco, was now an Episcopal priest on Long Island. Wouldn't it be great if he could come to our house in East Hampton and baptize Lily?
The next thing I knew, I was standing in our living room holding my little baby and asked to repeat words about Jesus Christ being the Holy One. And what was this about, "renouncing Satan?" I gulped. Our child was baptized, and I was in favor of that. I hoped that she would have a religious faith that I knew I was lacking. Three years later, our son Teddy was baptized too.
When we moved to Connecticut, I suggested that Howard take Lily to the local Episcopal church. She was then five years old, and willful little thing that she was, I knew that if she didn't start going to Sunday school she might quickly lose interest. So on Sunday mornings, Howard and Lily went off to St. Mark's, and I stayed at home with Teddy.
Every Sunday, Howard would return crowing about this great man, Roland Jones, and the beautiful voice and good humor of Maggie Minick. Teddy was accepted at St. Mark's Nursery School, and I spent happy mornings behind the church, getting to know the other mothers as we watched our children laugh and play together in the sandbox.
Howard suggested we could make it a family event and all go to church one Sunday. I reluctantly agreed. The nursery school was located in the back of the church, but this time I was going through the front door, which had a big gold cross over it. I felt like an alien.
Once inside, things got worse. I was handed a "Bulletin," also called the "Order of Service." But I felt completely out of order. I didn't know when to stand, when to kneel. There was a hymnal in front of me, but I didn't know any of the hymns. When everyone from my pew filed up to the main altar for Communion, I sat alone. I felt, as a Jew in a sea of Christians, like a fish out of water.
Yet even in my discomfort, I looked around and my heart stopped racing. I saw some people I knew from the nursery school or from Lily's school. Parents and children -- albeit a little too perfectly dressed -- were together, worshipping. Okay, some of the kids were fidgeting and drawing on the Bulletin. But at least some of them were sitting up straight or leaning on their parents. They were together. They felt something.
I listened to Roland Jones' sermon. It wasn't a bunch of holier-than-thou, finger-wagging gobbledygook. He said things that were applicable to my life. I left church feeling uplifted.
I kept coming back. Everyone seemed happy to see me. After a childhood of pressure -- of having to perform in skating, in tennis and in school -- suddenly it all lifted. If Jesus really did die for all of us while proclaiming a gospel of love and forgiveness, I needed to listen up.
I set up an appointment with Reverend Jones. I told him how, when my father had died at age 56, when I was 26, God seemed so distant, so inaccessible. The only God I knew from my childhood was the God of guilt. (Though, as a disclaimer, I now have plenty of friends who grew up in observant Jewish homes with parents who passed on their faith to their children, and they were a lot closer to their God than I was.)
As easy as it was to talk with Reverend Jones, I couldn't quite wrap my heart and soul (and head) around God's son, Jesus Christ. How could He be three things in one, the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost? I kept thinking of those nesting Russian dolls, each stacked inside the other. Open up the big one -- God, and out pops Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
Reverend Jones saw my face squishing into confusion. "It's a tough concept," he admitted. "Lots of people have trouble with the Trinity."
"Well, let's start with Jesus being God's son," I said. "I don't know much about Judaism, but I do know that being Jewish means you don't accept Jesus as the son of God. He was a very good man and maybe even a prophet, but God's son? No way."
Roland smiled. "Just think of Jesus as the messenger," he said. "The messenger that will help bring you closer to God."
Thinking of Jesus as the intercessor -- the connection between God and me -- did help. I would work on the Trinity later.
On December 4, 1993, Roland Jones made the sign of the cross on my forehead in holy oil, as he baptized me. "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." Howard, Lily, Teddy and another couple were the only ones to witness my official conversion that winter's day. But I did feel that there were lots of other souls there -- I felt the Holy Spirit. For the first time, I truly felt the love of God.
My family was convinced that Howard had hoodwinked me. How could I leave The Chosen People for The Chosen Frozen? Why would I want to become a WASP?
My mother was furious. My sisters felt betrayed. My aunt screamed at me, "You are no longer part of this family."
I stood my ground. At 40 I was able to decide for myself what I chose to believe. I assured them that my becoming a Christian in no way lessened the love I felt for my Jewish family, or the respect I had for my grandparents. But I needed faith and forgiveness -- and most of all, a loving God -- in my life.
One of my sisters and four of my cousins married non-practicing Christians. My mother passed away in 2007. I eventually made peace with my aunt.
Twenty years later, St. Mark's is my spiritual home. Now I cannot envision life without having God in it and a spiritual community to buoy me up in hard times -- two divorces, the deaths of both of my parents and many close friends. Many of my closest friends are members of St. Mark's. We have shared glorious good times and lots of laughs. I have seen the light.
Hundreds of sermons later, Jesus is no longer just the messenger. I strive to be more like Him -- even if I usually fall short. Still, I am trying.
For the past 13 years, I have sung in the church choir (I finally did learn almost every hymn), and after our Thursday night rehearsal many of us go out for "fellowship" -- which in Episcopalian speak, is code for eating and drinking. There is fellowship of another sort on Sunday mornings, as I serve God by raising my voice (I'm now known as "Belting Kelting") in songs of praise and thanksgiving.
My children, who are now in graduate school in California, return to St. Mark's at Christmas. There is nothing sweeter than looking out at them, sitting in the pews with their father in the candlelit late-night service. They smile at me as I stand with the choir behind the altar screen, and sing the Christmas carols and anthems with boundless joy. The trumpets blare. The timpani thunders. Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is born.
The next morning, we open the presents under our beautiful Christmas tree.