How My Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Family Helps Me Find Faith During the Holidays

I need it more than ever

by Liz Skoski

banneroption1woman staring into the distance

I’m in need of some faith. I went to college and graduate school to be a teacher. And for a while, that’s what I was: a high school English teacher in some of the worst neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn. But I’m not anymore.

The gauntlet of testing, the unending paperwork, the constant attitude from students who didn’t feel inspired to go to school, the demand to always give more, do more with less, overcome, left me drained. I searched for another job but no one seemed to think I was qualified to do anything besides stand in front of a classroom. I finally managed to find one, but the commute was an hour and fifteen minutes each way on the train, which left me a lot of time to stew in my own bitterness, frustrated and sad that I’d given up my twenties to be a surrogate mother to other people’s children, leaving me no time to consider my own. Teaching gutted me and left me feeling empty. My job search left me feeling worthless, like I had nothing to offer that anyone wanted. My new job leaves me feeling restless, like starting all over again.

I’m thirty-one. Everyone keeps telling me I should be fighting to “have it all.” But I often find myself trying desperately to scrape together the pieces to “have enough.” I’m jealous of those people who say things like “I need to pray on it.” And the people who meditate. The ones who are sure of divine purpose. I want to believe in something. But I don’t know how.

My own relationship with faith is confusing. The rituals and repetitions of Catholicism are slipping so easily from comforting to consuming. Growing up, I found myself tipping toward obsessive, praying over and over again until I said the words perfectly, and then once more, just in case, to please God. Some nights found me up late praying, praying, praying because if God could be as vengeful as he seemed in the stories they told me at Sunday school, certainly he would demand perfection in my prayers to protect my friends and family. I think about those nights and balk, hesitant to return to this, this feeling of inadequacy when searching for relief.

I look to my husband’s faith. His Judaism is similar to my Catholicism, lapsed and fleeting. He draws upon it both in whimsy (the time in college when he gave up beer for Passover) and necessity (the time he was responsible for making the decisions for his grandfather’s end of life care). We light the Hanukkah candles (using an iPad app in the days before we purchase a real menorah). He says prayers in a language I don’t know, but understand all the same. And I feel anchored to a thousand years of survival and perseverance. I eat the bitter herbs with his family and I feel weighted with the will to live in the face of insurmountable obstacles.

My brother-in-law’s faith is stricter, needed, like a compass that always points him True North. His faith gives him rules to follow to live his best life. He does not drink. He prays when called. He smiles in my wedding photos, quietly ignoring his growling stomach, empty because of Ramadan. My sister and him attend the Eid Al-Fitr celebration, her wearing the long skirt to show respect. There’s a Quran with gold writing prominently displayed in their living room, and I feel his fight to preserve his religion in a world that is so hostile toward it. I feel the pride it must take to defend it in the face of ignorance and fear.

And still, there are memories from Christmas Mass as a child, listening to my father sing “Silent Night” in Latin, how he winked at me when he caught my surprised face. There is the way the prayers still sound when said at friends’ church weddings, my voice lost in a chorus, how the Ss in “forgive us our trespasses” whip around the congregation like ghosts. Maybe this is what my faith will look like in modern America. Creating it. Making it from scratch. Putting together the pieces like a puzzle until the picture finally emerges and you find what you need. A mosaic of beliefs. A patchwork of comforts.

Because my family will sit around the table on Christmas Day with the tree shining brightly in the background. My dad will cook a Halal turkey. My mom will wrap my husband’s gifts in special Hanukkah wrapping paper. My nephew will beckon me to “Arwa!” (Come on!) in Berber. And maybe, this is where I will find my faith.

Liz Skoski

Elizabeth Skoski lives in New York City. She is the author of For Girls Who Find Themselves With Child, the proceeds of which are donated to The National Network of Abortion Funds. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Bustle, The Frisky, and others. Find her on Twitter @lizskoski.

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  • KPM

    This was absolutely beautiful writing and really struck home. Thank you for sharing!

  • Sara

    Its beautiful that you have such a widely religious family. I love the idea of the melting pot celebration!
    I have similar struggles with Catholicism, thereby taking a leave of absence from the Church. My brothers have skewed more non-denominational Christian which I admire since they enjoy their bible studies and are active in their religion. But I felt off at their services. It was too…loose. I enjoyed the structure of Catholicism, so I look for something similar and yet different. Religion is hard. Good luck with your search for faith.

    • Alyssa

      I feel similarly about Catholicism. I was raised Catholic and relied on it in my first year of college as a structure when I felt like I was freefalling and homesick, but in the decade since, I’ve found my spirituality elsewhere. I’d like to join a church and have visited a few, but also agree that non-denominational Christian feels too lose, but haven’t found anything yet in my search. Good luck to you!

      • Amy March

        Episcopalian is the classic not-Catholic but still formal option, just in case you haven’t tried it yet!

        • Hannah K.

          ^^^This was exactly what I came here to say. My husband was raised Catholic, but it wasn’t a good fit for his liberal/progressive values. I was raised Lutheran, but couldn’t find a church that I liked when I moved to my current location. My now-husband and I actually met at our Episcopal church. :-)

          • Amy March

            Where are these magical churches that single straight men attend?!?

          • JC

            Man, not my church. Or any church I’ve attended in the past…5 years? Geez.

          • Hannah K.

            I hear you. He’s pretty much the only one that I can think of in the 8 years that I’ve been at that church. Thankfully, all I needed was just one. :-)

          • NotMotherTheresa

            I live in the bible belt, so occasionally you’ll find one! It’s still pretty slim pickings, though!

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    • InTheBurbs

      I’ll throw out there that are other kinds of Catholicism besides Roman. My wife and I are members of an Old Catholic church – it’s rooted in the Netherlands and there are several diocese throughout the US. I describe it as a faith tradition that has the ritual that I know and love combined with a social construct that fits who I am today.

  • Shannon C.

    Thank you for this.

  • Jess

    You’ve highlighted a lot of the beautiful and moving parts of faith. It is something I always feel a little jealous of – there are rituals and codes and communities and mainly, at the end of the day, the belief that there is some sort of a purpose and a being in control of what is going on.

    I feel a bit empty, not having that. Maybe it’s just being surrounded by a lot of people with both casual and profound faith, but I feel like I’m missing some component that would have enabled me to believe religious teachings rather than just say, “Yeah, these are good morals to live by.” It feels like there’s something blocking me from making the jump.

    I appreciate your optimism at the end, that you’ll find your faith and comfort.

    • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

      There’s the ritual/community part, and the believing that your prayers are heard by someone part. I lost the latter a while ago, and sometimes I miss that, and sometimes I feel freer without it. But the rituals and the community were beautiful and wonderful by themselves, and I do miss that a whole bunch. I have a hard time participating in them, not having the beliefs to back them up. It feels, like you said, empty. I would have to pretend to the people around me that it was more than it was.

      • Jess

        I miss the rituals and community quite a lot. I grew up Episcopalian (old joke: Catholicism without all the guilt), moved to Methodist (how my dad grew up) with my family, and tried real hard at the Campus Crusade thing in college. Many of my very good friends are religious.

        I feel sad knowing that I’m not going to have a large group of older women to ask advice from or people delivering me food if I fall ill. I don’t get a weekly day to check in with families I know.

        I miss the rituals, too. We go to church with my family on holidays, and I know the songs, when to sit/stand, and what to say during communion. But I’m just going through motions.

        The point of the ritual was to connect with God/to be cleansed/to praise and I just don’t feel it. It seems somehow disrespectful to pretend I do.

        • librarygirl.totherescue

          This could be me! Cradle Episcopalian, but my family stopped going when our home church became too mean and angry to people who weren’t like them, then attended a Methodist church in college, but when I moved across the country for grad school, I never found a church that I fit in with, and I discovered it was the ritual and the bonding I missed more than the faith.

          • Jess

            I can’t say that I miss faith because I never really had it. My parents do, and I went to church because that’s what we did.

            However, I do feel emptiness and dismay where often my friends with faith find hope and comfort.

            They tend to feel less conflicted about their choices, be quicker to let go of guilt and shame, and in the face of bad life events, they feel hope that it will work out. And when they talk about those things, they talk about knowing that they are following a plan or they are doing things that are pleasing to God (like eating halal or praying certain prayers, or going to confession). They say things like Inshallah and “God’s timing is perfect” and draw comfort from it.

            A lot of times, I wish I had that.

        • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

          Yes! Same, but started Lutheran (Catholic Light) before moving to a Methodist church. The church ladies still love me and ask about me all the time and pray for me on a regular basis. They’re my mom’s support system, and she’s part of theirs, and I love knowing that she has them. 150 miles away are a whole bunch of people who love me, and god, I wish I could build a new church community here. It’s hard to find something like that, if you’re not looking in a church.

  • savannnah

    This piece was lovely and timely. I am struggling to understand more about my fiance’s lapsed catholic background and this idea of faith, finding it, having it, and demonstrating it in public and private ways. As a Jew, I conceptualize my relationship with religion very differently. Most stories of Christian faith I’ve come across discuss a struggle with keeping it and finding it, and about a solidified and direct relationship with God, and I like your ideas about finding this faith in the commonality of faith itself.

    • Jess

      “faith in the commonality of faith itself.” I love this idea.

  • Anon For This

    I’ve rejected the religion I grew up with and all other ready-made options. My search for what is real has led me to what some might call the New Age movement, though I don’t call it anything.

    I am a fan of some (not all) channeled information like the Channeling Erik web site and The Amendment web site. I knew about Brexit, Trump, and the Cubs winning beforehand. In case you’re wondering, yes, Trump will win a second term, and the president after him will be as different from him as he is from Obama.

    Not right this minute, but in our lifetimes, international trade will be a moot point. Remember when the Iceland volcano stranded flights for days on end? That was a preview. Several volcanoes are going to spew enough ash into the air that international shipments and flights won’t be possible for a number of years. Commerce will be extremely local. Trump will succeed in bringing back prosperity to those who have been losing in our economy, but he won’t be able to halt the economic disaster that’s been in the making – no effect on the national debt. The debt crisis will be worldwide. 1/3 to 1/2 of all people will be jobless and after our currency fails, people will begin to set up barter systems and/or a local currency. Extended families will live together.

    I went Anon for this post, but all of you will remember it when it happens.

    Mostly, channeled information is about using abilities that we are led to believe we don’t have. As a result of allowing, I have seen my first ghost – a very comforting woman who came in a time of trouble, and I have had a couple of dreams that foretold what would happen the very next day.

    • SarahRose472

      Volcanoes don’t stop ships, road travel, or telecommunications, for starters.

      • Anon For This

        Telecommunications based on the Internet will be functional. Navigation will be too difficult because a compass won’t be reliable due to the magnetic poles shifting because the earth will wobble on its axis. Road travel will be possible, but far fewer vehicles will be on the road due to oil prices rising so high.

        • SarahRose472

          Ok, I’ll bite. Why won’t we be able to use GPS for navigation? Why wouldn’t we shift to greater use of electric cars or trains?

    • Annie

      I respect most beliefs so long as they aren’t harmful to others, but I must admit that I’m having a little trouble connecting what you’re saying here to the piece written.

      • Anon For This

        It’s the part about humans having more abilities than most of us know. There are spiritual means of accessing knowledge.

    • gonzalesbeach

      “I went Anon for this post, but all of you will remember it when it happens”
      if there is a worldwide catastrophe and total collapse of the world economy, then I can guarantee that I won’t be thinking about that time Anon posted on APW.

      • Anon For This

        I bet you will remember.

        • Anon For This

          Here’s a quicker prediction. The EU will disintegrate in stages. The next step will be Gerexit or Frexit.

    • Sarah

      Omg Alex jones has discovered APW

      • Anon For This

        I don’t listen to Alex Jones. I don’t care if you think I’m ridiculous. Unless you happen to die young, you will see everything unfold for yourself.

  • librarygirl.totherescue

    This is a really beautiful post!

  • Dess

    This is beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing.