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The True Story of Nonna

Posted by Karen Fisman on 11/30/2015 to Meet a Kar-Ben Author

Karen Fisman is the author of Nonna's Hanukkah Surprise. Below, she shares the story of the Nonna who inspired her interfaith Hanukkah story.


In a couple of weeks time, I will be travelling to the remote Canadian city of Sault Ste Marie to do a reading of Nonna's Hanukkah Surprise. Sault Ste Marie, or the Soo as it is affectionately known, has a large population of second generation immigrant families. There are lots of Finns and Italians, but very few Jews. So why, you may be wondering, would I be travelling there to do a Hanukkah reading?

Well, if a book could have a birthplace, Nonna's Hanukkah Surprise would have been born in the Soo. That was where I first met Nonna, and it was also where I learned about the joy of sharing holiday traditions with non-Jewish family.

Nonna was Italian and Catholic. She had emigrated from Calabria to the Soo in the 1950's, settling in that bitterly cold city with its beautiful stark surroundings and a steel mill that provided jobs to new immigrants. When I met Nonna, she was in her seventies, and as the Italian immigrant community stuck together, I was one of the first Jews that she had ever met.

I still remember that first meeting: Nonna hugging me tight, then shepherding me to the kitchen where everyone was gathered. I was peppered with questions about my family and what I did. The topic of my Jewish identity went untouched, but when dinner was served, Nonna took me aside to share that, especially for me, she'd made her meatballs without pork that day. Several years later our son was born, and the issues became larger than pork in the meatballs. We had decided to raise our kids as Jews and Nonna struggled to understand how this would impact her grandchild. When she came to visit the new baby, she brought him a gift, a Magen David and a cross, hanging together on a gold chain as in her mind, her grandchild was both Jewish and Christian. My husband gently explained that this was not the case. There would be no baptism, but there would be a bris. Her grandchild would be raised as a Jew.

We'll never know what internal struggle Nonna might have had with our decision. We only experienced her full-on effort to understand and be a part of our Jewish lives. She visited us during the holidays, paying close attention at the Passover seders, and witnessing (though not participating in) our Yom Kippur fasts. We would visit her at Christmas, bringing along first one child and then two, excluding ourselves from church services, but enjoying the holiday feasts and family time.

As our kids got older, we started packing a Hanukkah bag for our Christmas visits, whether the holidays coincided or not. Our kids delighted in teaching Nonna and the cousins to play dreidl, using chocolate gelt as currency. In subsequent years, the Hanukkah bag grew as our kids contributed their ideas. We schlepped Hanukkah decorations, menorah, beeswax candles and Hanukkah stories along. We also bought Nonna a food processor to expedite our latke making, as latkes had become a staple of the holiday feasts. It was a wonderful way of sharing our celebration as Nonna and the cousins were sharing theirs.

Nonna passed away some years ago. Reflecting on the sweet memories of our holiday visits, I wrote Nonna's Hanukkah Surprise, about an inter-faith family's holiday celebration. The story is about little Rachel, who brings Hanukkah to her non-Jewish Nonna's house. When things happen to go awry, it's Nonna (of course) who steps up to save the day.

So now, I imagine, you can understand why I will be travelling to the Soo with my family and our Hanukkah bag to do a Hanukkah reading. The reading will be hosted by the church that Nonna used to belong to. Churchgoers will be at the event along with members of the Soo's Jewish community. And I will be sharing Nonna's Hanukkah Surprise and its message of love and acceptance with all of them.

Happy Hanukkah to all!

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