Another kind of Christmas tree controversy

So I quit my job last week.

Well, I guess you couldn’t really call it a job, since I wasn’t getting paid a cent to do it. From last March until last week, I wrote a monthly column for the Jewish Voice & Herald, a biweekly paper that’s distributed for free to 7500 households in the Ocean State and southern Massachusetts. I wrote about my life as an empty-nest, politically progressive feminist who takes my Judaism seriously and also happens to be married to a non-Jew.

Writing the column let me take a break from fiction, and gave me a regular deadline, and a chance to be read. On a more personal level, the column let me explore issues I care about: how to live a good life, political implications of personal choices, reconstructing religious rituals to meet modern sensibilities, gracefully dealing with the myriad issues that arise and evolve in the course of an intermarriage. I also saw the column in terms of community. As the paper’s only intermarried columnist, I wrote from a perspective that is shared by one third of local Jewish households. But our concerns are rarely discussed in Jewish media, unless we’re being advised about how to make sure our children keep observing Jewish rituals.

So why did I quit? For the December 9 issue, I submitted a column adapted from an essay I published a while back in Seven Days, and reprinted on this blog last year. It was about having a Christmas tree in our home. My husband is not Christian, but he grew up celebrating Christmas in a secular way, and when we could no longer spend the holiday with his parents, he wanted to have a tree in our home.  I discussed my ambivalence towards the tree, and explored the reasons behind my ambivalence. I talked about how my growing involvement in Judaism and self-confidence as a Jew has helped me feel better about the tree. I concluded that learning to love a tradition that is so important to my husband epitomizes the Jewish value of shalom bayit – a phrase that’s traditionally translated as peace in the home, but also suggests wholeness in the home. Deep down, I believe, Judaism teaches that I should accept the tree.

Deciding to submit that column wasn’t easy. As far as I’ve come in my acceptance of our tree, I still haven’t summoned the nerve to invite Jewish friends over while it’s up. And although I had written about other aspects of being intermarried, ‘fessing up about the tree was a scary next step of self-exposure. I was outing myself, and I believed that once I had done that, I would eliminate my last source of embarrassment about my marriage.

But it wasn’t to be. A few days before my deadline, I got a call from my editor. She loved the column, she said, but it worried her. So she showed it to her boss, the president and CEO of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, which holds the paper’s purse strings. And he said no. You can’t run the column. It might offend some of our Orthodox and non-Jewish readers.

My editor didn’t specify exactly what might offend them, and I was too angry to think of asking. She didn’t ask me to revise or reconsider any portion of the column. She just said she couldn’t run it.

So, what was offensive? The message I hear is that it’s okay to admit that intermarriages exist, and great to talk about how to make them work – as long as, in the end,  it’s the non-Jew who does the adapting. When the non-Jewish spouse learns to love the Chanukah lights, it’s cause for celebration. When the Jewish spouse learns to love her partner’s tradition, not so much.

I don’t know the man who pulled the plug on my column. But his picture is on the front page of the paper sitting on my living room table. He’s comparing the organization he heads to its counterparts around the country, and asking why so few people attend the Alliance’s programs. “As Jews throughout greater Rhode Island,” he writes, “we must help and support one another – no one else will do so. As such, I ask all of you, all of us, to begin to think more broadly with our community hats firmly in place.”

Good idea. And as part of that exercise in thinking more broadly, I would suggest reading the recently compiled demographic study of the Rhode Island Jewish community. You can find it right on the Jewish Alliance’s website. Under “Religious Involvement,” you’ll find the fact that one quarter of Jewish households have a Christmas tree. One half of all homes with Jewish children have one.  If our community hats are firmly in place, it seems to me that we should be embracing those people—not pushing them away, scolding them, or, worst of all, pretending they don’t exist.

My editor wondered if I might have another column they could run instead. I told her I would think about it. And I did. I thought about all the hours I devoted to my column each month. Why was I doing it? Because I wanted to show that there are different ways of being Jewish. That you can find value in the religion, and add value to it, even if you don’t follow the standard playbook. That families like mine are a large, important, and legitimate part of the community.

I still believe all those things. And I’m grateful to my editor and the paper’s board for inviting my voice to be heard. But I can’t write for a paper whose publisher decides which aspects of my experience are fit to print. I can’t write honest columns if I’m forever worrying that my words won’t be deemed kosher. And I can’t write for a paper whose policies embody disrespect for my own sincere and deeply-felt engagement with Judaism.

I told my editor I didn’t have a substitute column for this month and that I wouldn’t be writing for the Voice and Herald in the future. I hit send and felt better. Sort of.

That was Thursday night. On Saturday morning, I attended Shabbat services at Temple Emanu-El, as I do most weeks. I took my regular seat, and during the Torah service, I helped out at the front of the room, and chanted the portion from the prophets. At the congregational lunch afterwards, I told friends what had happened with my column. One of the other Saturday-morning regulars asked, “What was your column about?”

“Having a Christmas tree,” I told her.

She leaned closer and confessed, “I have a Christmas tree.”

p.s.

You can find the censored column here. If it offends you, please let me know.

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11 Responses to “Another kind of Christmas tree controversy”

  1. Linda P. Epstein Says:

    I don’t know why, but this made me tear up. I’m not intermarried and we had never had a tree. Except last year when our beloved former au pair and her fiancee came to visit us from France during Christmas and we got one for them. She’s like a daughter or a sister to me and I didn’t want her to forgo her holiday just because she was visiting us. When we lit Chanukah candles she sang the Hebrew prayers with us, with her French accent, not knowing what she was saying, but with a huge smile on her face and tears in her eyes. When we draped tinsel over the branches of her tree and sat and looked at the lights twinkling in our family room I was slightly uncomfortable, wondering what my Jewish friends and family would say, if they saw. But I agree with you, Ruth. Our tree provided shalom bayit, too. It was an expression of love. And good for you for quitting your column.

  2. rhondasaunders Says:

    Congrats, Ruth! You are crazy awesome for doing the right thing and for writing so eloquently about it.

  3. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    Thanks, you guys.

  4. Alison Bechdel Says:

    Snap!

  5. Marlene Says:

    Ruth, in some respect your article conjures up memories of a very difficult time in my life.I did not grow up in a kosher home, but pork products, shellfish, milk and meat were never served. My mother was brought up kosher and it always surprised me that on the few occasions that she went out for lunch with her girlfriends she would have either a ham or crabmeat sandwich. This bothered my father and, to some degree, it also bothered me. When she became so ill that she completely lost her appetite, I asked my dad if he would allow me to bring a ham sandwich into the house for her. He allowed it. I was embarassed about the situation and never told anyone about it – including my grown siblings. And, no, she didn’t have the strength to eat it or anything else ever again.
    Today, I believe that how you exercise your religion is very personal and no one has the right to judge another. So, Ruth, I think your article should have been published. Do I think it may have offended some – sure- what article doesn’t? I also think it’s time for people to be more tolerant of how others choose to live their lives. You made a decision to have a tree after realizing how important it was to David. I made a decision to bring ham into my parents’ house.
    I think it is a story worth hearing. Sorry, you were denied the opportunity. How about sending it as a letter to the editor??
    Marlene

  6. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    Thanks, Marlene. And thanks for your story.

  7. MLM Says:

    Thank you so much for your piece. Judaism has a bright and beautiful future with wonderful people like you. I was not raised Jewish, but my husband (of eight years!) was. We’ve been struggling with this issue for such a long, long time, trying to find a way to respect what is near and dear to everyone’s heart. I converted to Judaism through a Conservative rabbi over two years ago, a commitment that I take very seriously. But this is also the first year that we brought a tree into the house. While I fast on Yom Kippur and observe Shabbat, I also like the smell of pine in my house in December, one of my fondest memories of childhood and my own family. It wasn’t until I converted that I felt like I could actually say that this is my choice — to take the best of other cultures while still loving my own, to honor and respect tradition while being open enough to form new traditions. I wish with all of my heart that Jews everywhere would realize that Judaism is so much more than not being Christian and not having a tree. Just like the Sephardic people and the Ashkenazi people embraced different parts of the cultures in which they lived, I hope that American Jews can embrace some of the parts that make December lovely in America without losing their Jewishness.

  8. Susan Katz Miller Says:

    I’m sorry the paper lost such a thoughtful, literate columnist, and a voice representing so many intermarried people. Thank you for taking the extra brave step of documenting what happened.

    I’m glad I found your blog again via your comment on Tablet. I realize I’ve been here before, because of a shared obsession with Crispin’s Crispian. Lol!

  9. My End-of-Year Meta-blog « Giving Up The Ghost Says:

    [...] December 8 piece about Jews and Christmas trees and quitting my column attracted more readers than any previous [...]

  10. MaryWitzl Says:

    Your article is certainly not offensive, and you’ve got a point.

    When I was working in North Cyprus, my boss (non-practicising Muslim married to a Buddhist) insisted on putting up a Christmas tree. It was plastic, cheap, and wholly repugnant, but my colleagues and I (non-practicising & practicing Christians, including Catholic, Orthodox & Syriac), many Muslims, and at least one Jew, all dutifully assembled it. Some of the British residents in Cyprus complained about not having an ‘authentic’ Christmas, yet there we were, surrounded by Biblical plants, just a stone’s throw from the Holy Land. I think fir trees smell lovely, and they remind me of childhood Christmases. But they’re absolutely a pagan symbol and have zip-all to do with true Christianity — and as such, are up for grabs.

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