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The Last Christmas Tree

Joanne and Herb recently married after a two-year courtship. A divorced physician, Herb met Joanne, a widowed nurse, when they participated in a hospital study together.

Early in their courtship each learned about the other's background. He had grown up in a Conservative Jewish family in the Northeast, she in a Protestant family in the Midwest. Both had gone to Sunday school as children, observed religious holidays, and raised their children in their particular faiths. With their children grown, neither Joanne nor Herb worried about their own fledgling relationship. If it blossomed, they should be able to work things out.  

It was Joanne who suggested attending Jewish services. "Let's go together and I can see what Judaism is all about," she said. They began to attend the local Conservative synagogue, where Herb had friends from the community.

"Right from the beginning," Joanne said, "I enjoyed the service. I love to sing, and the cantor has so much spirit I found myself humming the melodies."

That first year, Joanne claimed, she began to feel comfortable in the service, relying on transliterations. Bible stories from her youth were often cast in a different light, as the rabbi gave his weekly talks on the Torah portions. Through Herb, Joanne made new friends at the synagogue and offered to help Sisterhood prepare Sabbath lunches. "I learned quickly how to make apricot noodle kugel (pudding) for a hundred people," she said.

By the end of that year, Herb and Joanne discussed marriage. Together they attended conversion classes, just so Joanne could learn the basics of Judaism. Herb did not care whether or not she converted. As Joanne grew more and more interested in Judaism, it was she who eventually suggested it.

"Are you sure?" he asked her. "It doesn't matter to me. Your whole family is Christian. What will they think?"

Joanne had made up her mind. "We are starting a life together," she said. "I want it to begin with some commonality--at least worshipping the same way and celebrating the same holidays at home." She quickly added, "We can still spend Christmas with my children."

Joanne converted six months before Christmas, with the acceptance and support of her four sons. She and Herb began attending services regularly and took adult education classes together.

I chatted with Joanne and Herb in the social hall one Saturday following services. Hanukkah had come early that year, and she and Herb had decorated their home and lit the silver Hanukkiah (special Hanukkah menorah) Herb's sister had given them as a gift. All had gone well. But now it was almost Christmas, and Joanne found herself feeling unexpectedly emotional.

"Will you go to one of your children's homes for Christmas?" I asked her.

"No," she said. "I've decided to have Christmas here." Herb said nothing--just glanced around the room. "Herb has agreed to let me put up my tree one last time."

Joanne told me that she owned a beautiful artificial tree, which she had carted through three states and numerous homes. The ornaments dated back to 1905. Many had belonged to her grandparents. Many were handmade. Others she had collected on various trips to Europe, including Hungary, her family's ancestral homeland.

"They are so beautiful," she said, wistfully. "When they're all hung on the tree and the lights are on, it's a breathtaking sight."

I looked at Herb, who had been listening silently. "I've never had a tree in any home I've ever lived in," he said. "I can't say I'm comfortable with it, but if Jo wants it this last time, how can I say no"?

I wondered if Joanne would give up the tree completely.

She did. It happened this Christmas, the first in her new marriage. The experience turned out to be beautiful rather than sad, as she had expected.

"My youngest son had a great idea," Joanne said. "I put up the tree with all the ornaments and we had a lottery system. Each son, or his wife or children, picked a number. The lowest number got first choice of ornaments, the next lowest the next pick and so on."

"They continued with that system for over an hour," Herb added, with a laugh.

"I was thrilled," Joanne said. "Now they can enjoy the ones they selected. I can see them on my children's trees in years to come."

"Who got the tree?" I asked.

"Rick, my eldest," she said. "All the boys agreed it should go to him."

"How do you feel now, Joanne?" I asked.

"Wonderful," she said, softly. "Like I've closed the chapter of a book and I'm ready to turn to a brand new page."

"That tree will always be with her," I thought. We may close a chapter, but those chapters still contribute to our lives.

"You know, Joanne," I said, "nothing is ever really lost. Whenever you visit your sons you will be reminded of the life you led, and hopefully carry the best part of that with you into the future."

Her response was simply a smile, gentle and serene.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) Yiddish word for a savory or sweet pudding made from either noodles, potatoes or matzah. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Elaine K. Markowitz

Elaine K. Markowitz, a former English teacher and current freelance writer, lives in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah classes at Congregation Rodeph Sholom and is an avid biker.

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