Friday, December 14, 2018

Is It OK for a Jew to Want a Christmas Tree This Year?

I know this year feels different in many ways from the past. With the memory of the horror in Pittsburgh still a fresh, open wound, with anti-semitism on the rise around the globe and attacks in this country dramatically increasing, it is a time of grave concern for Jews.

So, at the risk of sounding foolish, unsympathetic, or even worse, I ask this simple but increasingly complicated question. Is it ok for a Jew to want a Christmas tree this year?

I did not grow up in a household where religion was a centerpiece of our universe. Hebrew school was a Sunday morning activity that preceded bowling. Temple was that place where I was compelled to sit several times a year for seemingly interminable periods, attempting to stifle the laugh that would inevitably surface at exactly the most inopportune moment. This is not meant to castigate or denigrate my upbringing, or the place of reform Judaism in the hierarchy of religious practice. It is merely intended to act as explanation for why I considered Christmas to be a secular experience, not antithetical to my beliefs, but more like bowling in a different context.

Christmas was, to me, merely a time of great joy and happiness, one where wishes did come true. It was not, in my mind, something that belonged exclusively to one people. Not intended as a day of exclusion but inclusion. Santa was not a man of  limited bounty but one who would spread goodwill, near and far, to all those who deserved good cheer, who had suffered indignities or hardships throughout the year and were entitled to a moment of respite, no matter his or her station or color, no matter what temple, church or mosque he or she prayed in, no matter if they believed in your God, their God or no God at all.

And so, I was envious of the one Jewish friend of mine in town who grew up with a Christmas tree in his house. I did not know, care or understand if both of his parents were Jewish (they were). I merely comprehended, without need for clarification, this was not something that would ever happen in our house. And it didn't.

When I married, and as our children were growing, Chanukah became a time when we lit candles and exchanged gifts. It was, so I now understood, part of our inherited tradition, central to our being, even though our own attachment to the other aspects of religion was tenuous. And remains so to this day.

We are in a very difficult time in our society, in our world, where it seems that at any moment one half of the universe is in pitched battle with the other. It appears we are always drawing lines, always finding reasons to separate one from the other, forever being reminded that what makes us different is far more important than what brings us together. And Christmas is no different, a holiday reserved for some and not for others. 

I have never grown distant from my love of what unites family, what brings smiles to our collective being and warmth to our hearts. And so I wish that in this year, maybe more than any other, that Christmas was open to every Jew, every Muslim, every person who was in need of the concept intended by this holiday. I know far too little of the teachings of Jesus to speak at all to what Christmas really means. But for me, I think he would be more than happy to share this day with everyone, everywhere in need of solace, comfort and a moment of happiness.

I want to believe that, this year and in those that lay ahead, I am able to have a Christmas tree, literal as well as figurative. Without this making me a heretic. Without forgetting what it means to be a Jew in this often cruel and heartless world.


Anonymous said...

Really excellent!


Anonymous said...

well said, hope it gets in the times

Anonymous said...

one of your better columns. I too grew up in a house , not with a tree, but we did hang our stockings by the fireplace. Of course , in those days we got oranges and apples. This year we need more inclusion, less hated, in this world. I would hope that your message gets published
You have a wonderful family, as you you said, family is all. Happy hanukah and best wishes for the new year.

Anonymous said...

Finally a RSN blog I don't agree with. Long live menorahs and pride in tradition. Trees are secular, Christmas trees are not. They are beautiful but not a unifying symbol. We visit our friends' and relatives who have Christmas trees and they eat latkes, play dreydel and enjoy the warmth of candles.

Anonymous said...


FYI my son and daughter in law ( who converted to Judaism ) have a holiday tree ie Christmas tree with blue and white Hanukkah lights

Anonymous said...

NO !!!

Anonymous said...

Always. It's always ok. Even we Marxists have one.

Anonymous said...

I love it. This year, as with all years, we’ll have a tree. In my family grandma used to dress up as Santa!


Anonymous said...

Christmas trees are a PAGAN custom. Our Jewish friends from Southern California told us they always had Christmas trees. Everyone is entitled to a Christmas tree. You can decorate it with mini menorahs and dreidels etc. Why not? At our home we have a menorah and a small a small Christmas tree covered with felted wool ornaments in the shape of endangered animals of the world and birds. We do whatever we want!
Peace to all.


Anonymous said...

Loved that you wrote this. A Christmas tree brings much joy and happiness regardless of religion. I loved Easter egg hunts and Christmas trees growing up, but not for a second did I lose awareness of our Jewish culture and traditions. For us, our daughter can grow up with a Jewish identity and sense of culture and background, but still enjoy a Christmas tree. They are not mutually exclusive. I recognize it may have been different for generations before us, but for us, our daughter will be well educated about her religion and it’s history, while lighting the menorah with her left hand and hanging ornaments with her


Robert said...

Beautifully said, Robbie (as usual!). I was just having this very convo today with a Jewish girlfriend-- why I have a tree for my daughter-even as I embark on religious training for her, as well. It's that we want to portray the world with its many traditions,
whatever religion is behind them, in the best possible light to her. Lord knows( whichever one) there is enough ugliness in the world to inspire beautification in whatever form.
xxoo jb

Anonymous said...

I love this one.

And the answer, my answer, is YES! To me, what this holiday season is all about is not trees and/or the giving or receiving of gifts;, it is about a period for which to pause and think about and embrace the highest of human values. You hear it in the joy of the sacred choral music, in the tender recollection's of Perlman's annual Hanukkah Party, and see it in the face of the Salvation Army soldier shivering in the cold winter blast. It is a beautiful time... whether to a Christian who decorates his or her tree, or to a Jew who reaches for the Shamash with which to light the menorah candles. Or to an atheist like me, or a leftover pagan or heathen or whatever label you might attach, and to not look down on those around us who simply are different, but to look up to what could be a better world. And for a brief moment, at least, to forget self and even if by token only to spread happiness and love... and to earnestly long for peace.

Thank you for your gift to us of prompting us to pause for a moment to think about something beautiful in life....this holiday season