When my wife left me last year, I was not prepared for how lonely Christmas could be, nor did I realize how Jewish it would become.
Last Dec. 24, I was alone in the Sherman Oaks townhouse we once shared. I did not buy a Christmas tree; there was no joy in my home that such a tree could magnify. All the Christmas ornaments were hers, so there were no blinking lights, holly or front door wreath; she was very good at creating Christmas cheer.
My large Irish-Catholic clan (sisters, Anne and Mary; brothers, Matthew, Mark and John) means large Christmas gatherings. But schedules last Christmas meant we would not all be together until Dec. 26 at my parent's home. So last year, I caught the Christmas Eve vigil Mass alone at St. Charles in North Hollywood. It can be a painful place; I was married there three years earlier, but then again, it's also where three of my nephews, plus my twin brother and I, were baptized, and where my sister, Mary, was married. My fresh, sad marriage memories were muted by joyous thoughts of other Christmases.
After Mass, I drove to my oldest, closest friend's Fairfax District home for Christmas Eve dinner. It was a small affair, just me, him, his longtime girlfriend and her widowed mother. There was something comforting about his door's mezuzah that Christmas Eve.
I woke up Christmas Day morning with no tree, toys or eggnog, and I understood how Jewish children could feel left out on Christmas mornings as non-Jewish neighbor kids ride new bikes and try out other presents. Like Jewish kids, I had no gifts that morning.
But I had Sinai Temple. The Conservative Westwood synagogue's Mitzvah Day attracted 105 young Jewish volunteers to clean a beach, play with abandoned dogs, visit elderly Christians in a nursing home and feed Los Angeles' poor. They gathered in the underground parking lot of that Pico Boulevard Ralphs near Century City, where Leslie Klieger, Sinai's ATID young adult group director, greeted me, as did Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei.
I briefly interviewed him in the back seat of volunteer Lida Tabibian's parked SUV. The tape recorder was not working, which was embarrassing in front of the rabbi, who asked if everything was OK. I mentioned my divorce and he listened -- a much-appreciated act of Jewish empathy for a broken Catholic on this Christian holiday.
Last Christmas morning, rain soaked downtown Los Angeles' Skid Row, and the poor were wet and hungry. Inside a rescue mission were Klieger, Tabibian and other young Jews doing good for people far worse off than a tape recorder-challenged journalist whose wife had left him. With the mitzvah done, Klieger, Tabibian and I went back into Tabibian's large SUV so I could interview them for my mitzvah story.
Tabibian mentioned the Mitzvah Day's large turnout and said, "Isn't it wonderful what we're doing here?"
What could I say? My wife had left me. My savior was born yet I didn't feel saved.
But Tabibian's rich Persian smile, her dark eyes alight at the joy of doing mitzvah, and that phrase, "Isn't it wonderful?" briefly stopped my grief. Suddenly, with her question, Christmas Day started to glow a little.
Beauty and wonder at Christmas are not always under a tree or in a song or at Mass. Sometimes, beauty and wonder can be heard when a good-hearted woman asks you, "Isn't it wonderful?"
For dinner that Christmas Day, I went to Izzy's Deli in Santa Monica and met a friend, both of us alone, but now, not lonely.
This Christmas Eve, I may check out a Pico-Robertson Shabbat sermon. On Christmas Day, I might look in on Temple Israel of Hollywood's dinner for the poor at a nearby church, or maybe attend the Skirball Cultural Center's Theodore Bikel Yiddish concert in the evening.
I grew up in Studio City (yes, south of Ventura Boulevard). Except for two gauntlet years at Encino's Crespi Carmelite High School, I was a public school Catholic, surrounded by Jewish friends and Jewish student role models. The first girl I ever kissed was Jewish. The best man at my Catholic wedding was Jewish -- the same man my wife asked to tell me our marriage was over.
From my first crush to my first kiss to being praised by Steven Spielberg to my divorce to this newspaper, Jews have been there for me. And last Christmas Day, when I looked at the young Jewish volunteers in that underground Ralphs parking lot, in a small way I was home again; among my Studio City own, spending part of Christmas with cool Jews. I was broken, yes, but not alone.