Oy, Tannenbaum

Yesterday David and I met with our havura — a group of six couples from our synagogue who get together once a month — officially to discuss Jewish themes, but mostly to eat and laugh and enjoy each other’s company. Then David and I came home and trimmed our Christmas tree.

We bought the tree last weekend. We drove out to Coventry, in the hilly, wooded western part of Rhode Island, and tramped through a huge tree farm to find the one we liked best. We’d put off trimming it until our kids were home. I’m glad we waited. Trimming the tree is a family tradition. This year while we strung the lights, we lit a fire in the hearth, sipped port and listened to the same ridiculous Reggae  Christmas cassette we put on each year for this occasion. The ornaments are a mixture of old whirligigs saved from David’s childhood trees, new, hand-blown glass globes we have added through the years, and personal decorations, like the Farohar angel Sophie fashioned for David’s Zoarastrian mother.

When Eddie the mailman stopped by with our delivery, he gestured at the tree and wise-cracked to David, “Don’t tell the rabbi!”

I’m pretty sure he knows, I wanted to tell Eddie. And if not, I’m certain he’d understand. But not everyone would, and I understand that, too. We’ve had a tree in our house for many years now – long enough for it to have become a cherished tradition for our children. But I remain deeply ambivalent about it. On the one hand, I was only willing to divulge my plan to one or two members of the havura. And on the other hand, once we were home and the kids were helping David string the lights, I though of how grateful I was to have reached this season.

I wrote about this whole business several years ago, in Seven Days. Here’s what I had to say.

Oy, Tannenbaum

To tree, or not to tree? That is the question in homes like mine, where I am Jewish and my husband is not. Our situation is hardly unique. According to recent estimates, fully one-third of married American Jews have non-Jewish spouses. Hallmark cashes in on this trend with a cheerful card showing a house with a Christmas tree displayed in one window and a Chuanukah menorah in another. But for lots of families, accommodating this season’s competing claims isn’t quite as cut-and-dried as the card’s interfaith image might suggest.

In our case, for nearly two decades the Christmas tree question sat quietly in the corner of our marriage: always there, but never discussed. Since we always celebrated Christmas at the home of David’s parents, I could easily disavow the tree we trimmed there as belonging to the Christensens. And I was more than willing to do just that.

I preferred not to think about David’s modest desire for a tree, which paled beside his willingness to have a Jewish wedding and to give our children a Jewish education and my last name. Better not to remember the first year of our marriage – the only year we had ever stayed home for the holidays – when a beautifully bedecked evergreen brought the smell of winter into our Los Angeles apartment. Easier not to dwell on the realization that ever since the kids came along and I started feeling more seriously Jewish, the notion of a tree had been sitting less and less easily with me.

I never took the time to examine my tree aversion. But the longer I harbored it, the more attached to it I grew, and the gladder I was that geography and family were making it easy for me to keep it under wraps. I had always assumed this respite would only last as long as David’s parents hosted us for Christmas. But the crisis that finally forced me to find out what the tree really meant to both of us was my mother’s final illness.

I had flown to New Jersey to spend December caring for her. I had left David and the kids in Vermont with eight sets of little packages, one for each night of Chanukah, and the assurance that they would follow what had become our family’s inalterable holiday itinerary – Christmas in Rochester with the Christensens, and New Year’s with the Horowitzim in Montclair. But two days after I arrived at my mother’s, David called to tell me his parents had offered to come to Vermont to help out while I was gone. And as long as everyone would already be together, it only made sense that they should celebrate Christmas there, in our house, with a tree.

His words galled me. Here I was, absorbed in the heartbreak of figuring out which foods might be smooth enough to slide past the tumor in my mother’s throat, and he was changing his plans in Vermont? Here I was worrying about unplugging Mommy’s oxygen long enough to let her safely watch what would no doubt be her last Chanukah candles, and he was broaching a topic he knew I preferred to avoid? Crazy with self-pity, I heard his proposal as some sort ofcoup d’etat – the very worst form of betrayal.

But to David, this adjustment in arrangements seemed only reasonable. While I panicked and fumed, he quietly and logically laid out his position, absolutely certain that justice was on his side. He reminded me how far he, an adamant atheist, had come in accommodating my desire to raise our children – his children – in my religion. Compared to their four hours of Hebrew school each week, our daughter’s bat mitzvah and the Passover seders we all celebrated together, the Christmas tree he would put up was pretty insignificant. Wasn’t it?

“It’s not a logical issue,” I explained. “It’s a gut issue. Will you explain to your parents how uncomfortable I am with the idea of having a tree in my house?”

I was hoping that once my in-laws understood the situation, they would veto the tree idea. But I also knew that even if they did veto, David would try to override their vote.

“If you do end up having a tree,” I said, “will you at least get rid of it before I come home? I don’t want to see it there.”

“Are you sure?” He sounded hurt. “I thought it would be sort of nice to leave your presents there, so they’d be waiting for you when you got home.”

I could almost taste the sweetness of his vision: his home, his tree, his family reunited, gifts for the woman he loved. If I had allowed myself to linger a little longer in that moment, I might have also understood why this image meant to much to him. Though David raised without religion, his family did share some long-loved traditions, and one of their most treasured was Christmas. Our children, who had grown up spending the holiday with their grandparents, cherished this tradition as well.

“My parents have no objection to your lighting a menorah in their home,” David argued, his voice tense. “So why should you object to their having a tree in yours?”

“This is too much for me to think about right now,” I said.

What is a Christmas tree, anyway? Ancient Pagans observed the winter solstice with green branches symbolizing rebirth. Five hundred years ago, Germans decorated their homes on Christmas Eve with “Paradise Trees,” hung with apples representing sin, communion wafers signifying forgiveness, and roses in remembrance of the Virgin Mary. To many devout Christians today, the tree connotes the cross. But for most Americans, including my very secular in-laws, a Christmas tree is merely a Christmas tree: fun to decorate, pleasant to enjoy and a great centerpiece for exchanging gifts.

What the tree meant to the Horowitzim was a lot more complicated. The fact of the matter was that our adamantly Jewish family – like my mother’s adamantly Jewish family before us – celebrated Christmas. Every Christmas Eve, we hung our stockings on the mantle. Every Christmas morning we awoke to a miracle of gifts. And every Christmas afternoon we tucked into roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, with wreath-shaped ice cream moulds for dessert.

After my brother and sisters and I married out and started spending Christmas with our gentile in-laws, the Horowitz celebration of stockings and gifts and wreath-shaped ice cream moulds shifted to New Year’s Day. We took to calling it, with some self-deprecation, “Fake Christmas.” But for all our Christmas exuberance, real or fake, we drew the line at public displays. We never strung lights on our house. We never hung a wreath on our door. And we never, ever had a tree.

“It seemed like a fair compromise,” my mother said the next morning, as we discussed the crisis in Vermont. “We did it for the children. So you wouldn’t feel deprived.”

But a tree? “A tree isn’t necessary,” she declared. “A tree makes a very strong statement about the identity of the household.”

What we did among ourselves was one thing. Just because we liked candy canes didn’t make us not-Jewish, or Christmas a Jewish holiday. But this nuance was likely to be lost on our neighbors. It was vital to demonstrate that everyone on our street wasn’t exactly alike – that our family, at least, had not bee subsumed by the dominant culture.

For my parents especially, helping to raise the first generation of post-Holocaust Jews, being the only house on the block without Christmas lights was an act of defiance, a message to the world that centuries of persecution and murder and forced conversions hadn’t succeeded in wiping us out. That we weren’t trying to “pass” as non-Jews. That we weren’t the sort of people who considered our own long-beleaguered, minority religion so ritually impoverished that we had to go borrowing someone else’s traditions – although that was, in fact, precisely what we were doing, behind closed doors.

No doubt, our anti-tree fervor was also fueled by an unstated sense of shame. Okay, so maybe we had succumbed to this big, beautiful, goyishe holiday. But did we also have to advertise the fact?

These were the rules with which I’d been raised. Being good meant abiding by them – or at least appearing to do so. I had always been proud of the comfort my mother took in the level of Jewishness in my home, and I could see that David’s unexpected readiness to change the rules now, as she lay dying, struck her as a bad omen. Maybe we were raising her grandchildren as Jews while she was here to watch, but what would happen over her dead body?

Her position hardened as the day wore on. But as my panic receded and my thinking became clearer, I moved oh-so-slowly in the opposite direction. Freed from the grip of her anxiety, I started seeing David’s point of view. I began to understand that a tree – which came so loaded with difficult and confusing implications for the Horowitzim – was, for the Christensens, simply evergreen and ornaments: beautiful, beloved and essential. What we were dealing with here, I began to realize, wasn’t some crafty encroachment on undefended territory, but a variation in styles of celebration – just a bit of tinsel on a bough. Why should something so benign make everyone lose so much sleep?

David was still indignant when he phoned that evening. He called my anti-tree attitude selfish, hypocritical and intolerant. However, he went on, he and his parents understood how hard things were for us in New Jersey, and they didn’t want to add to our stress. So his parents would only stay in Vermont while the kids were in school, and then they would all drive to Rochester for Christmas. The status quo would stand, for now. But David assured me, quite firmly, that this accommodation was only temporary.

All this happened many years ago. Since then, we have had many trees. And although I still feel squeamish about inviting Jewish friends into my home while the tree is in place, I have also learned to enjoy it – and attitude that’s bolstered, ironically enough, by my growing certainty of myself as a Jew. I light Sabbath candles with my family on Friday night, lead prayers and read Torah in the synagogue – things the Horowitzim never did. I know who I am, and don’t need the absence of a tree to remind me. And if our tree confuses our neighbors about the identity of our home, they can always come inside and get to know us.

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5 Responses to “Oy, Tannenbaum”

  1. Emily Weaver Says:

    I loved this post! I wanted to add that as we speak, our Matzah Ball dough is chilling in the refrigerator. Our tradition for many years on Christmas Eve has been to serve Matzah Ball soup….we get weird looks from some of our very traditional Catholic families..hehe.

  2. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    Ha! Now I need to know how your Christmas Eve matzah ball soup tradition got started. Hope it’s delicious. Merry Christmas!

  3. Lea Carmichael Richardson Says:

    This was a fascinating read, lovely and insightful. Thanks!

  4. Lynn Rubinstein Says:

    Thank you Ruth. The story of how you worked this through is very powerful. And though it is your personal story I am sure the questions, the turmoil and all the other emotions resonate with many of us. You are courageous to put this out in the public sphere.

  5. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    Thanks, Lynn.

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