It is the morning of Christmas Eve. I open my Facebook page and fill in the blank next to my name so that it reads, Ona Gritz, a nice Jewish Girl, is really looking forward to going to church this evening with the Goy she loves. Dan has sent me information on the church he picked out for us and it looks lovely. Across from Rittenhouse Square, my favorite park in Philadelphia, the Church of The Holy Trinity describes itself as “a community where faith and doubt, affirmation and hesitation may be expressed in a safe environment with a view to deepening the spiritual life.” I’m as touched by the warmth and openness of that statement as I am by Dan’s determined effort to find Christmas services where I’ll be most comfortable.
Last year Dan and I attended a different church in Philadelphia on Christmas Eve. We were treated to beautiful organ and choral music but, unfortunately, the sermon that followed was dry and exclusionary. And the Jews did not recognize Him, the pastor railed. I wriggled in my seat. As a Jew, I recognize Jesus in my own way, as a brilliant charismatic rabbi and a peace-loving member of my tribe. I also see him as an incarnation of God, but I see all of us that way, so in that sense the pastor had a point. What put me off most about his sermon was the insistence that there was one right spiritual view. When it was time to say Amen, I couldn’t help myself. Oy vey came out of my mouth instead.
With that rare exception, I always enjoy attending holiday services with Dan. I love how he squeezes my hand when he finds something in a sermon meaningful and how he lights up at the resonant sound of the organ. Watching his face while he sings the hymns in his beautiful baritone, I feel the spiritual connection we share as lovers, an invisible thread that binds us as we stand silently side by side.
Is he Jewish? my father used to ask when he heard about a new man in my life. The last guy I told him about was Italian. My father, ill in the hospital at the time, smiled and waved his hand in a playfully dismissive gesture.
“Jewish, Italian,” he said. “Aah, same thing.”
It’s an old joke that Jews and Italians are similar culturally, though I’m not entirely sure on what this is based. The best I can come up with is that we’re both known for being passionate and confrontational, and for eating lots of starch.
When I first met Dan, I imagined my father asking, Is he Jewish? Though had my parents been alive at the time, I’m fairly sure they’d have found Dan’s being blind more troubling than his being Protestant.
“I’m so glad Ona has someone to take care of her,” my mother gushed when I brought Ethan’s future dad — Richard — to meet her.
A feminist and hotheaded Jewish girl, I burst out, “How can you say that? I don’t need a man to take care of me!”
Looking back, I realize my mother wouldn’t have encountered many examples of women with disabilities making it on their own. With this weighing on her mind, I can see how she’d have taken in Richard’s strong athletic body and confident demeanor and felt relief at the thought of me in his capable hands. This leads me to believe that had she and my father lived to see me fall in love with Dan, their first thought would have been, who’s going to take care of them?
I’m not physically strong. He can’t see. I don’t drive a car; obviously, neither does he. It’s understandable that they would worry. You two will have a hard life together, I imagine my mother warning me. Be practical for once, my father would probably say.
And yet I’m certain my parents would have eventually come to love Dan. First, they’d notice how much we have in common. We both love music and literature, passions I inherited from my mom. Before long, they’d discover that Dan’s as practical a person as my father. They’d also see how good he is to Ethan and that would seal the deal.
One reason parents encourage their children to choose partners within their faith is in the hope that the couple will have enough common ground to truly understand one another. Dan and I share that deep comprehension through disability. We both know from the inside out what it’s like to live with difference. We’ve each had the experience of being underestimated by well-meaning strangers and friends. This is precisely why we’re so adept at taking care of each other. We know when and how to help each other and when to stand back and let the other fumble. It’s true that the specifics of our disabilities are nothing alike. Again, it’s like our two religions in that way. The details are different, but if you focus on what the lessons are and the part they’ve played in forming each of us, at the core they’re very much the same.
Just last weekend, Dan and I helped each other negotiate the streets of Philadelphia in the midst of a record-breaking blizzard. Where I could, I guided Dan around huge snowdrifts. When we had no choice but to plunge through them, I relied on his strength and steadiness to keep me upright. And when we did fall down, we fell down laughing. I wish my parents could have seen us.
“Blind, schmind,” I imagine my father saying, waving a playful dismissive hand.