Converts to Judaism Struggle to Give Up the Christmas Tree

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Amanda’s niece Marissa, 8, hard at work on decorating the Christmas tree. (Photo by Avishay Artsy) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

For me, Christmas was always something other people did. I grew up in a Jewish home, so I watched the holiday’s rituals unfold from afar, as people on TV and in the homes of friends hung ornaments on a tree, unwrapped presents, drank eggnog and wore ugly reindeer sweaters.

As a kid in the United States, it’s literally impossible to avoid Christmas, unless you live in certain Hasidic neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The music blasts from every radio station and department store, and the shopping mall Santas beckon you nearer. I secretly wanted to celebrate Christmas so I could be like everyone else. The Hanukkah candles were nice, but their soft glow paled in comparison with the tinsel and bulbs of the Christmas tree.

And how can “I Have a Little Dreidel” even compare with Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” perhaps the greatest Christmas song of all? The hit single came out a year after my bar mitzvah, and I could not get enough of that song. Christmas music is so good — and it happens that many of the songs were written by Jews.

I’ve never had a Christmas tree in my home. My girlfriend, Amanda, and I live together. Things are getting serious and we’re talking about having kids. She was raised as a secular Christian and she wants us to get our own Christmas tree. I’m Jewish, and even though I’m not religious, having a tree in my home feels weird to me, like a repudiation of my upbringing.

Amanda is thinking about converting to Judaism. We take a class at a synagogue every Sunday called “Judaism by Choice,” and learn about the history, traditions and practices of the Jews. We were even “married” in a fake wedding in class, to learn about the customs of Jewish marriage. It’s basically Hebrew school for grownups.

In a lecture on Christianity and Judaism, our instructor, Rabbi Neal Weinberg, explained that a Jewish family should not have a Christmas tree in their home. And no Hanukkah bush either.

“There can’t be fusion of different religious groups,” Weinberg told me in an interview. “It can be confusing to children. They’re wondering, ‘Why are we doing Christian holidays in our home?’ If you’re Jewish, you’ve got to get across to your children that you’re Jewish. We have our own holidays. We respect other people and their holidays. But that does not mean that we have to incorporate [them] into our home life.”

After class, Amanda was clearly upset. A Christmas tree, she explained, is symbolic of her childhood. It means family, togetherness and unity. As someone who loves crafting, she had looked forward to someday teaching her children how to hand-paint ornaments and hang lights and bake cookies. She wanted to decorate the house and make eggnog and throw Christmas parties.

I feel like a jerk for denying her this. What’s wrong with a Christmas tree? Amanda is not religious and sees the tree as a purely secular object. Why can’t we celebrate both holidays?

I sought a second opinion from Rabbi Susan Goldberg, who mentors converts at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. She also was the consulting rabbi on one of my favorite shows of 2014, “Transparent,” on Amazon Prime, and is well versed in the challenges facing young Jews.

Goldberg agreed that Jews shouldn’t have a tree in their homes, and acknowledged that December can be the most grueling month for someone wanting to convert to Judaism. Many fear that disconnecting from the faith of their upbringing also means disconnecting from their families.

“For most folks in our dominant Christian culture, this is a big question, and it generates a lot of emotion,” she said. “The Christmas tree is this very powerful symbol when it’s in the home.”
But, Goldberg added, converts don’t have to disconnect from their families, and can certainly participate in Christmas activities at the homes of others.

I asked some of my classmates how they’re handling the idea of relinquishing the Christmas tree. Sarah Reeves, a psychotherapist in Long Beach, had an artificial Christmas tree, but her Jewish fiancee sees it as a Christian symbol and doesn’t want it in their house. She doesn’t see it that way.

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Marissa, 8, tries her hand at being a radio reporter too. (Photo by Avishay Artsy) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“Because I didn’t grow up in an organized religion, it just seemed like American culture. I never really associated it with any kind of religion,” she said.

Reeves still bakes Christmas cookies with daughter Sophia, who’s 7. They hang stockings and go to Christmas parties. But she agreed to let the tree go.

“I donated the tree to my daughter’s school, and I took all the ornaments, and I had to get creative about how to display them in our home, so I ended up stringing them on ribbon. And I tried to make it a thing for my daughter and I to do together,” Reeves said. “I just couldn’t get rid of all the ornaments because I’d collected them over the years.”

“I’m a little disappointed that we can’t have a Chanukah tree,” sighed Emily Fredrick, a real estate agent in Beverly Hills. “I was really looking forward to that.”

Fredrick was raised in a religious Baptist home in Dallas and went to church three times a week. She’s excited about converting to Judaism but acknowledges that there are some things about Christmas that she’ll miss.

“As a child growing up, we would get up at 4 in the morning for Santa to come,” Fredrick said. “I’m thinking, like, ‘How am I going to make it exciting for my children?’ ”

Danielle Sebring, a first-grade teacher in Los Angeles, had similar concerns. “I had always had this image of decorating a Christmas tree with my children someday, because that’s what I did growing up, and making cookies and leaving them out for Santa,” she said.

Sebring converted to Judaism this year after marrying her husband, who is Jewish. Before converting, she said, “I almost had to go through this grieving process for these expectations that I had around the holidays.”

The first year Sebring and her husband were married, they had a Christmas tree and they also celebrated Hanukkah. Last year, she had a small, tabletop tree with lights. This winter will be her first without a tree.

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Reporter Avishay Artsy, learning that “trimming the tree” does not mean giving it a little haircut. (Photo by Amanda Sutton) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“It’s a very nostalgic thing. For me, it was a big part of my family growing up, and so it really makes me feel connected to them. And that can be hard to let go of,” Sebring said.

Clearly, Christmas is connected to a lot of deep-rooted feelings, and most of them have nothing to do with religion.

“I don’t think, for most of the people who go through my program, that the struggle in giving up Christmas is about a struggle in giving up Christianity,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, who leads the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University.

“I think it’s a struggle in giving up a piece of their cultural and family story, at a time that they associate with really warm and wonderful memories.”

Greenwald tells converts to examine the emotions they associate with Christmas and look for ways to celebrate them in a Jewish context.

“The Jewish calendar is replete with holidays, certainly more holidays than are practiced in the Christian tradition. And I think there are opportunities to do all of the kind of sweet family experiences around those holidays that one does around Christmas,” he said.

This past Thanksgiving, Amanda and I drove from L.A. to the Bay Area to visit her family. While we were there, we decided to buy a Christmas tree for her sister’s home. We all piled into a pickup truck and headed to the Costco in Vallejo.

Amanda’s niece, Marissa, is 8 years old and calls Christmas her favorite holiday. She couldn’t wait to decorate the tree, and after we set it up, she pulled out a box of ornaments and began pinning them around the tree, asking for my help to reach the higher-up places, while leading the family in a Christmas singalong.

Watching Marissa’s excitement, I get why Amanda wants a tree. She was that little girl once, too. I’m having a hard time resisting the pull of Christmas.

And yet, Hanukkah is a celebration of resisting that pull to assimilate. It commemorates the Maccabees, a Jewish rebel army, who fought the Syrian Greeks for religious freedom. But even before that, the Maccabees fought those Jews who wanted to adopt a Hellenistic lifestyle. The same debate exists today, and Christmas is a perfect example of a mainstream practice that’s hard to avoid or to resist.

“Wrestling with these questions is very much the heart of the Chanukah story. That’s why it’s wonderful that it happens this time of year,” Goldberg said. “Those questions of assimilation and distinctiveness are really useful conversations to have.”

My girlfriend is still deciding whether she wants to convert to Judaism, and I’m still looking for a Christmas tree compromise. Maybe a tree with a Star of David on top? A Christmas … cactus? We’re still figuring it out.