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There's a Christmas Tree in My Living Room

There's a Christmas tree in my living room. I know that at this time of year there are millions of Christmas trees in millions of homes, so what's the big deal? Actually, it isn't a big deal, except that I'm Jewish. Not just plain Jewish, but actively Jewish. So much so, that I serve on the Board of Directors at my synagogue as Vice President of Spiritual Life.

Elizabeth Tragash and grandchild

I have a whole host of "Jewish credentials" dating back to my high school years when I studied Hebrew at an ulpan, attended Jewish summer camps and belonged to two Jewish youth groups. I even attended Friday night services on a regular basis. Although I did not become a Bat Mitzvah at 13, I attended confirmation class and Hebrew high school and, after a long succession of adult education classes, I became a Bat Mitzvah at 50.

My kids often jokingly refer to me as a "Super Jew," an appellation that I sometimes use in jest to describe myself. So, what am I doing with a Christmas tree in the corner of my living room?

Truth be told, this is not my first Christmas tree. I grew up in an era when it was not unusual for Jews to celebrate Christmas and Hanukah. I have vivid memories of beautiful Christmas trees and plates of cookies left by the fireplace to be consumed by Santa Claus who left us piles of presents to open on Christmas morning. I have only vague memories of Hanukkah centering around lighting the menorah on the nights that we remembered to do so. Occasionally we would get a small gift or some gelt. The big stuff was reserved for Christmas.

As I got older, the large fresh trees were replaced with small artificial trees. There was no more Santa, but we did exchange gifts on Christmas, not at Hanukkah. Up until I was in my 20s, my family had an elaborate and festive dinner on Christmas day. It wasn't because we were trying to be Christian or deny our Jewishness, it was simply that Christmas was the most convenient time for the extended family to gather and the custom of convening at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas had not yet taken hold.

The Christmas tree in my living room today is not there as a concession to a non-Jewish spouse. Actually, I am married to a Jewish man, although we often joke that ours is an "interfaith" marriage. In contrast to my "Super Judaism," my husband practices "Holiday Judaism." He sits restlessly through High Holiday services and Passover seders, yet believes very strongly in the importance of observing Jewish holidays and preserving tradition.

When we became parents, our December dilemma mirrored that of many interfaith households: he was adamantly opposed to any kind of Christmas tree, while I felt that it would do no harm. In fact, I thought that it might do some good. Every December my children were seized with bouts of "Christmas Envy." My daughters would look longingly at the lights that adorned our neighbors' houses and the trees that filled their homes with beauty and excitement. They consoled themselves with the prospect of eight nights of gifts during Hanukkah, but like the grass, the tree looked so much greener in someone else's window.

I felt that bringing a tree into our home might reduce some of this envy and demystify the aura surrounding Christmas and all of its commercial trappings. Perhaps this would enable our children to appreciate what they did have, instead of coveting what they didn't. I wanted them to learn that Judaism and Christianity encompass far more than the December holidays and that the true meaning of these holidays has very little to do with trees and presents, but resides in a deeper exchange of gifts of another, nonmaterial kind.

Ultimately and, much to the disappointment of our children, my husband and I agreed not to bring a tree into our house. It is only now, 22 years later, that there is a tree in our home and with it, some of the most precious gifts.

Three years ago, suddenly and unexpectedly, our daughter eloped and moved hundreds of miles away. Shock and anger gave way to profound grief. Although I was not a proponent of interfaith marriage at the time, the fact that our daughter had married outside of our faith paled in comparison to the fact that she had married very young, interrupting her education and moving so far away, both geographically and emotionally. A year of heartache and estrangement was followed by a year of gradual, but steady reconciliation that culminated in our daughter and son-in-law coming to live with us. They have been with us a year now and the house that was heavy with sadness and silence is now filled with laughter and light.

In early December the kids asked if they could put a small tree in the apartment we had built for them. I told them that they could put a tree of any size in our living room. It was their idea to incorporate Hanukah into the decoration of the tree, so there are dreidels, menorahs and stars hanging beside candy canes and simple ornaments. My large collection of Hanukkah books, dreidels are menorahs are displayed on the hearth next to the tree.

Although the Christmas tree may have symbolic meaning in the world beyond our living room, our tree is simply a beautiful decoration that draws us in to sit together and take in the rich fragrance and sparkling lights. It is a place to store the gifts that we will exchange on Hanukkah and Christmas. My daughters know that they are Jewish; having a tree will not change that any more than having a menorah in the house will alter my son-in-law's religious affiliation.

What is more important to me this holiday season is that we are together in the same room and that peace has been restored in our family and in me. It is a hard earned peace that was born out of the flexibility that enabled me to adopt views that differed from my previously held and often rigid opinions on how life should be lived. I am learning that whether we are members of an interfaith family, a Jewish family or a Christian family is not important. What is important is the common denominator--family. I've learned the lesson that I tried to impart when my children were younger: the true gifts of the holidays are creating opportunities to spend time together and celebrate the love and support that we give each other throughout the year.

Postscript: This story was written in December 2006. Once again, a Christmas tree graces our living room, along with a bassinet and assorted baby paraphernalia. In September our family was blessed with a beautiful baby girl. My granddaughter received her Hebrew name last month. Her parents have chosen to raise her in the Jewish faith, but for now she is mesmerized by the lights on the tree and the menorah and we are treasuring the special gifts that she brings to our family.

A ceremony created by the Reform movement as a way for young adults to show their decision to embrace Jewish study and reaffirm their commitment to Judaism. Confirmation is typically held at the end of the tenth grade. Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." 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. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." 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 language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew term for a school or institute for the intensive study of Hebrew. Primarily found in Israel, "ulpan method" Hebrew classes are found around the world. Yiddish for "money," usually refers to chocolate coins given on Hanukkah (and used as bets during the dreidel game).
Elizabeth Tragash

Elizabeth Tragash began a career as a freelance writer in 2000, after 20 years of working as a clinical social worker. Her work has appeared in GenerationJ.com, Jewish Magazine, the Metrowest Jewish Reporter as well as a number of local newspapers and regional publications. She has also conducted writing workshops at the Rivier Institute for Senior Education, Roudenbush Community Center and Littleton Community Education. She is currently trying to balance writing and teaching with taking care of her multigenerational family in her home in Groton, Mass.

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