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The forest beyond the trees

photo by flickr user EveMBH; licensed under creative commons.

Every year at this season the subject rises up again. This year you can find it in Slate, where Mark Oppenheimer and Jessica Grose debate Should Jews Own Christmas Trees? Or Andi Rosenthal's essay Tree of Life, which asks "why one particular type of tree--you know, that one--causes us such anxiety." Or take this recent tweet from @InterfaithFam: Having a Christmas tree doesn't make you "less Jewish" - or does it? I offered a three-part response on twitter, but -- go figure -- I think I have more to say than can be expressed in 520 characters.

This isn't just about conifers. The tree is a stand-in for the bigger issue of how we as a religious minority relate to the dominant religious/cultural tradition around us. (My perspective on this is a Diaspora one, and a USian one at that -- readers from elsewhere, feel free to chime in too.) The notion of Jews trimming Christmas trees raises communal fear of assimilation and disppearance. When we have this conversation, we should be conscious of that fear and of how it shapes our response.

This also isn't new. R' Joshua Plaut's essay Jews and Christmas teaches that many Western European Jews had Christmas trees (my maternal grandmother, z"l, used to reminisce about having a tree in Prague in the 1930s; apparently Theodore Herzl had one too) and how in the US, too, many Jews adopted the custom of trimming a tree as a sign of American-ness. Jewish writer Anne Roiphe wrote an essay in 1978 about her Jewish family's Christmas celebrations (and in response to the ensuing wave of criticism wrote Generation Without Memory and vowed to seek a more engaged Jewish life.) 

But the the Jews I know who have Christmas trees have chosen that practice because someone in their intimate family is a non-Jew for whom the tree, and the celebration it represents, is important. The Jewish Outreach Institute offers statistics: "28% of the 2.6 million married Jews in the U.S. are married to non-Jews and the rate of intermarriage [in 1990] was 52% of all marriages involving at least one Jew." Many of us have Christians in our extended clans, if not our intimate nuclear families. When we have this conversation, we should be conscious of that, too.

Every interfaith family needs to negotiate its own solutions to the so-called December Dilemma. (And now that I've invoked that term, my favorite post on the subject is this one from Naomi Chana, written back in 2005.) But suggesting that the existence of a Christmas tree might make the Jewish partner in an interfaith household "less Jewish" is, I think, unhelpful. Jewishness is not measured in increments. A Jew who observes Shabbat each week is not "more Jewish" than a Jew whose observance is haphazard, and a Jew who has a Christmas tree in her home is not "less Jewish" than a Jew who doesn't.

There are so many ways to express our Jewishness throughout the year: in our relationships with God and liturgy and prayer, in the books we read and the blogs on which we comment, in the thinkers and scholars upon whom we choose to draw in relating to our world. In the ways we understand the rhythms of time: morning and afternoon and evening, weekday and Shabbat and festival. In our observance of the many festivals in the wheel of the year, days of fasting and days of feasting. None of that is diminished if we also celebrate Christmas with our Christian loved ones. And I think there's value in actively choosing to create and celebrate a Judaism which is not defined by anxiety about being a minority tradition, even at Christmastime.

When I was a kid, my best friends lived across the street and one house down. I used to go to their house and enjoy their Christmas tree (I'm pretty sure I remember gingerbread men, mugs of cocoa, and gifts) and they used to come to mine for latkes, presents, and games of dreidl (and, far more importantly, for seder at Pesach.) One year when they were altar boys, I went with their parents to midnight mass to see them do their thing. I remember my mother earnestly explaining to me that even if everyone else knelt, or went up to get communion, it was okay for me to sit in the pew with my hands folded in my lap.

In my childhood paradigm, it was natural for me to celebrate Christmas with my Christian friends, and it was equally natural for them to celebrate my holidays with me. I'm blessed to live in that same kind of paradigm now. None of my Muslim friends are local, but if y'all were, I would happily bring you iftar during Ramadan and invite you to visit during Sukkot. As it is, we join some friends in savoring a bûche Noël and candle-lighting at the Winter Solstice, and we join some friends (and family) in lighting the chanukiyah and exchanging gifts during Chanukah, and we join some family (and friends) in exchanging gifts and enjoying the scent of fresh-cut pine at Christmas, and we join still other friends in dancing and feasting at the turn of the secular year. Joining my friends and loved ones in their beloved rituals doesn't diminish my rootedness in my own.

Some argue that joining in singing Christmas carols or lighting a Yule fire on the longest night of the year isn't the same as having a Christmas tree. (Gil Mann, for one.) The Christmas tree is a potent symbol of the festival which so dominates American culture at this time of year (not just during the Advent season, but every shopping day from Halloween on.) In some understandings the tree is a symbol of the cross on which Jesus died. In others it's a recasting of European pagan traditions of bringing evergreens into the home during the long cold winter, a symbol of the faith that spring will eventually return. (That's apparently the argument that Neil Gaiman made when he was eight, as he recounts in Hanukkah with bells on.) Either way, it's likely to be contentious. If you don't have one, its absence may be palpable -- especially to your kids, if they have non-Jewish friends. If you do have one, its presence may be a source of tension with Jewish friends or relatives who don't approve. (Speaking of kids, a recent post at Ask Moxie looks at Celebrating holidays cross-religion? and an interesting conversation is unfolding in comments.)

I understand the American Jewish tendency to focus on The Tree, but I'm more interested in the bigger question of how we relate to other religious cultures, especially the majority religious culture within which our various Jewish cultures flourish. For me, the question of whether having (or enjoying) a tree diminishes one's Jewishness is beside the point. Jewish identity shouldn't be so fragile that a decorated evergreen can shake its foundations. At this season, we can become so fixated on the matter of the tree ("to trim a tree or not to trim a tree" -- is that really the question?) that we lose sight of the forest beyond it -- which is to say, the bigger religious picture of the year, of which December is only a small part.

I also have a pastoral concern: I worry that for the Jews in interfaith families who have chosen to decorate a tree, the communal fixation on the question of the tree may be hurtful. Telling them (explicitly or implicitly) that their choice is wrong isn't likely to change their practice, but it is likely to make them feel alienated from the Jewish community, and that's exactly what I don't want.

In a bigger-picture sense, I want us to be able to relate to other religious traditions without the fear of annihilation.

I'm a ritual afficionado, so I love coming into contact with other people's holidays. Of course there's a difference between celebrating a holiday which is "mine," arising out of the tradition where I am rooted, and joining loved ones in celebrating a holiday which is "theirs," where I am a respectful tourist. But just as visiting a foreign country may enhance my appreciation of my home because I've encountered a context which is different from my own, I can enjoy visiting someone else's holiday too. (I suspect this was part of R' Sami's thinking when he assigned his "Liturgy of High Holidays and Festivals" students the task of attending festival services in another tradition.)

The December holiday season isn't a zero-sum game. Enjoying A Charlie Brown Christmas, Britten's settings of medieval Christmas texts, or an evergreen teeming with lights and ornaments needn't take away from one's ability to thrill at the lighting of candles during Chanukah. And more importantly, it needn't take away from one's consciousness of weekday and Shabbat, of the Days of Awe and the Counting of the Omer, of the many jewels studding the Jewish religious year. As Paula Brodie argues in her essay Happy Holidays? Understanding December Dilemmas in the Context of Jewish Family Memories, "Jewish identity is a year-long process[.]" Whether or not one trims a tree at this season is, for me, far less important than how one chooses to relate to Judaism during the rest of the year.

I received an email recently from my reacher Rabbi Marcia Prager which moved me. She noted that although many Jews have a complicated relationship with Christian holy days (with good reason; we have often been victims of violence at important moments on the Christian liturgical calendar), "[w]e need not ignore the historical fact that this celebration marks the birth of an extraordinary Jewish teacher, whose wisdom – solidly grounded in emerging rabbinic Judaism – stressed God's love and compassion even during the bitterly cruel Roman occupation." She and her husband Hazzan Jack Kessler, the leaders of Pnai Or, will be sharing a reading from the book of Mark -- chanted in haftarah trope! -- when Christmas morning falls on Shabbat in a few weeks. What a beautiful modeling of a different kind of relationship than most American Jews seem to have with Christmas... and with Christianity.

So nu: does having a Christmas tree make one less Jewish? I don't think it's a useful question. My question instead is this: what would it look like for us, as Jews, to respectfully and joyously help our Christian friends and loved ones celebrate their festivals, and to invite them to join us in celebrating ours, without blurring or blending our customs into a shapeless mass of giftwrapped winter celebrationalia?