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The Only Year We Had a Christmas Tree

December 4, 2009

Even though I was not Jewish when I married my Jewish husband, the only religious holidays our household has observed have been Jewish, with one exception: There was one time in the early years of our marriage when I bought and decorated a small Christmas tree.

Debbie Burton's one lonely Christmas tree
For the second Christmas of her marriage, Debbie Burton bought a small potted fir tree and decorated it.

I'm embarrassed about the tree now, although there is really no reason I should feel that way. And yet it is one personal story from my long spiritual journey that I did not share with the rabbi who I studied with for conversion, despite the fact that I shared many other stories with him and he, in turn, shared relevant personal stories of his own. I developed a great trust in my rabbi and I know with certainty that he would not have expressed disapproval of my having put up my own tree so many years ago. After all, I wasn't Jewish then and we didn't yet have any Jewish children for whom having Christian symbols in their own house might be seen as problematic.

I realize now that I bought that tree as a "test" of Josh's assurances that I did not have to become Jewish for him and that my religious identity was mine alone to choose. Ironically, it was the fact that I was so drawn to Judaism that I wondered whether he actually did have expectations of my religious expression. He knew that I might have chosen to convert to Judaism before we got married if I had not been afraid of my parents' reactions. Indeed, there had been one uncomfortable situation regarding religion when we were planning our wedding ceremony, and that experience was a major reason that I did not convert until more than two decades later.

For three years while we were graduate students and before we married, I had attended services with Josh at the university Hillel almost every Shabbat and holiday. But I also remembered that when we were only sophomores in college, he had once mentioned that he would not marry a non-Jew. So although he had evidently changed his mind about that, perhaps I felt that he might only be able to accept me as a non-Jew because I would have converted if I had not felt the need to respect my parents' wishes.

It was actually for the second Christmas of our marriage that I bought a small potted fir tree. We had just bought a townhouse a few months before, and suddenly had a home twice as large as the small apartment we had lived in as newlyweds. I put the tree up in the loft room, so it wasn't particularly conspicuous in our home. I draped a string of miniature lights around it and made some origami ornaments from the book of Christmas origami that my Jewish sister-in-law had given me as a gift. The star I made for the top of the tree was a Mogen David ("Jewish star"), of course.

I told Josh about my plans before I bought the tree and he did not object. I seem to remember that he almost encouraged me to get a tree. Maybe he wanted to show that he was indeed accepting of my not being Jewish. But I realized that year that I wasn't really comfortable with having my own tree. I enjoyed visiting my parents (who lived less than an hour away) and seeing their tree, but Christmas was their holiday; it didn't feel like my holiday anymore. I never had any desire to have my own tree again. In a way, I think it is good that I did it once, just to know I didn't have a tree because I didn't want one, not because Josh didn't want one.

True to his word, Josh never even suggested that I should convert. As the years went by, our household became progressively more "Jewishly observant," until it was much more observant than that of any of our Reform Jewish friends, including those with two Jewish spouses. Surprisingly, it was often me rather than Josh who pushed for stricter kashrut or Shabbat observance. Nevertheless, because I was not Jewish when either of our children was born, they were not "Jews by birth" by Conservative standards, so we had to go through a process to formally "convert" them.

When I finally converted to Judaism, it was truly "of my own free will," as I attested in reading out loud and signing the "Declaration of Faith" as part of the conversion ritual. Although that action would seem at first to be completely the opposite of my having a Christmas tree 20 years earlier, they both demonstrated my freedom to express myself in a religious sense. The difference between the two events reflected the change in my religious identity that had occurred in that time span.

I wonder sometimes if my future descendents will think it strange if they come across the photo of that tree. It is one of many digitized photos that my descendents will probably have on their computer. They will find that the photo of the tree is dated just a few months after the photos of our first sukkah.

I think I was uncomfortable with the memories of that tree because it reminded me of the psychological impediments I had to work through during my long journey to Judaism. But now that I have finally converted, I can look back at that tree in a more positive light as an indicator that my choice to start on the path that would eventually lead to my conversion to Judaism was truly my own.

Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "booth," a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot ("booths"). 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.
Debbie Burton

Debbie Burton was concurrently active in three Conservative synagogues before her conversion made her eligible for "official" membership: the Ner Tamid Ezra Habonim Egalitarian Minyan (a lay-led congregation in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago), the Skokie Egalitarian Minyan (the lay-led "library minyan" of Ezra Habonim, the Niles Township Jewish Congregation, which is within walking distance of her home) and Beth Hillel Congregation Bnai Emunah (the synagogue where her children attended Hebrew school).

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