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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.
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.