Vicki Polin is an award winning, retired Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, who has been working in the anti-rape field since 1985. This blog reflects some of her past work, and contains articles and other information dear to her heart.
Sunday, November 25, 2012
Jews and Christmas Trees?
By Vicki Polin
The Examiner - November 25, 2012
For those not familiar with the Jewish faith, Christmas is NOT a Jewish Holiday, nor a holiday celebrated by the vast majority of Jews. Over the years with the increase of assimilation and the fact that Christmas has been promoted as a secular holiday, many non-practicing Jews and individuals from many non-Christian faiths have been integrating the holiday into their families traditions.
Recently I started asking online the question, “Do you think it is OKAY for people who are Jewish to have a Christmas tree in their home?" I was astounded by the whole array of emotionally filled responses I received from individuals from within every movement of Judaism. –– From those who consider themselves to be orthodox through individuals who are unaffiliated.
For many who responded when thinking about Jews celebrating Christmas –– let alone having a Christmas tree in their homes, brought back memories of those who were murdered by Nazis –– and throughout the history of the Jewish people.
“Susie Cohen” of Skokie, IL said: “For centuries Jews have been displaced, raped, tortured and killed for holding onto their culture, religion and belief system.”
Another common theme in responses was that while growing up parents decided to bring a Christmas tree into their homes because they didn’t want their children growing up feeling like they were missing out on something. At the same time individuals from within the same demographics (those from rural communities and also large cities), stated: “Their parents would haved drempt of bring a Christmas tree into their homes because they didn’t want their children to loose sight of what it meant to be a Jew.”
It was also interesting to hear from a group of people who answered the question by saying: “we spend far too much time worrying about what other Jews do in their homes and not enough about how we do Jewish in our own.”
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who is the spiritual leader at Anshe Sholom Bnai Israel Congregation in Chicago, stated that “a Christmas tree is a Christian symbol and, to my understanding, brings a powerful Christian atmosphere to any home that has one. Any Jewish home contemplating having a Christmas tree should be honest about how powerful this symbol is and whether they want the Judaism in their home - which might be quite subtle at times - to be overpowered by such a strong Christian symbol.”
Chicago Resident, David Blatt who considers himself to be an orthodox Jew says: “Why not? Asian-Americans, who are often Buddhists like my Japanese-American friend John, has had one for years. American Jews, sadly have a strong anti-Christian bias but let's be honest: Who of these two did a greater transgression: –– Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who was busy molesting girls for years in the name of Torah -–– or Mr B, a 50 something single guy, who just put up a small Christmas tree in his studio high rise apartment?”
Los Angeles native, Alex Asher Sears, shared that she “grew up in a mixed faith home with a Jewish foundation but joy in celebrating the rituals my non-Jewish family had, too. We had a tree from the time I was about 10.
I also grew up learning that the tree was about the Solstice and that the fact that these holidays occur around the same time of year was to understand that religions probably have more in common than less.
I grew up understanding that all of these holidays in the way we celebrate them with gifts was NOT a religious thing. This is a time of year for reflection, celebration and doing for others.
What was more important was that “I learned to love the family gatherings that took place round the menorah and also around the tree. Both were important because they were our families rituals. We gave them the meaning we wanted them to have.
If I marry a man who said no tree, I wouldn't be OK with it, because the tree ties me to the rituals of my family. For me having a Christmas tree means that when my grandmother talks about Christmas morning as a little girl I can understand just as I do when my Bubby tells me stories of Passover when she was a child. And I think they each got great joy being able to celebrate those aspects of their childhoods with their grandchildren and vice versa.
A few personal friends who converted to Judaism, stated that they couldn’t imagine bringing a tree into their homes, especially for them the tree represented the faith they walked away from."
New York psychologist, Michael J. Salamon stated: “I was raised to believe that a tree represents a holiday that we cannot follow. Perhaps it is because my father, as a Holocaust survivor, saw Nazism as deeply rooted in Catholic anti-Semitism and therefore, symbols of Catholicism were just not acceptable.”
TammySue Margalit, who grew up in Skokie responded by saying: “HELL NO, not in my house, but I will not tell someone else what to do.”
Rabbi Zev Shandalov, a Chicago native who now resides in Israel believes that “the Christmas tree is one of the most well-known representations of the celebration of the Christian holiday. By introducing that symbol into one's JEWISH home, one is in fact taking another step towards assimilation. A Christian is free to practice his or her religion as seen fit. However, it must be realized that it is indeed THEIR religion and not ours. Bringing a Christmas tree into the home negates one's Judaism and Jewish roots.
Additionally, our religion is so rich and full of beauty and wonders! The Menorah is such an awesome symbol--one of light in dark times, faith in G-d and brings families together in warmth and love. Why does one feel a sense of lacking in all that we have that he need bring in foreign symbols? Our religion lacks nothing.”
Marcia Cohn Spiegel, a long time activist for Jewish women’s civil rights believes that “it depends on the situation. I would find it disturbing in my house, but in interfaith marriages it honors the customs of one partner (if that partner also honors Jewish customs).”
Danny Shaffer of Highland Park, IL responded by saying: “The truth is I frickin' LOVE christmas! I get the tree with my boys..we listen to christmas music while we decorate it, put gifts under the tree..cookies for santa.. watch all the christmas movies..the whole nine yards..it's a great AMERICAN holiday and as you know –– I’m seriously Jewish.”
Shoshana Martyniak said: “My husband isn't Jewish, and one of the things that I said when we were first dating was that if we were going to continue to date, he had to give up christmas and the tree. I wanted a Jewish home and part of that Jewish home is creating a safe space where you can be free in your Jewishness. I realize that much of secular non-Jewish America, including the giant gentiles families –– see nothing religious about Christmas.
As a Jew, no matter how pretty the lights are, no matter how good the tree smells, it is still a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ-- a man who is not our messiah, who, to us, is not the son of G-d, nor a part of our story at all. So, why would Jews celebrate his birthday? Especially in our own homes?
Over the years, I've made the concession that if we are in Wisconsin, we will visit my in-laws on Christmas. There are rules: 1) No Christmas presents for my children 2) An understanding that we are VISITING them and my children are sharing their holiday, just as when we invite non-Jewish friends to passover, but it is not our holiday, it’s not in my houses.
And yes, I do judge when it comes to this. I do think it's confusing. Children have enough Christianity thrown at them during this time-- their houses should be safe. There needs to be a line.”
Rabbi David Gruber, a native of Evanston, IL –– stated that “like most things in life, a one size fits all approach is seldom helpful. A Christmas Tree is not something that has meaning for me, personally. It would, therefore, not serve any constructive function in my home. However, there may be families, where this may have personal meaning. I see no harm in those families having a tree.”
Sara Hawkins said that "for many years I put up a Christmas tree. My best friend and college roommate celebrated Christmas so we decorated for both Hanukkah and Christmas. Life went on, we graduated, moved away and then eventually ended up in the same city, she in her apartment, my husband and I in our house.
Since we had the larger place we'd invite my best friend to come over (and others who would be alone) on Christmas.
One year I decided to put up a tree for her on Christmas Eve so she'd have a familiar experience. It wasn't about me or my beliefs. I did that for about 10 years and many of my Jewish friends thought it was great while others chided me for being a horrible person for bringing a Christian relic into my home.
What I do in my home in a loving appreciation of my friends and family is not for anyone to judge me negatively, but people will (and do).
Do I think Jewish people should put up a Christmas tree? Sure, if that makes them feel happy and joyful and good. Christmas trees aren't even of Christian origin, they're Egyptian (from what I learned). The original question of "Is it OK..." already sets this up as a good/not good discussion. Of course it's OK for Jews to put a Christmas tree in their home, as much as it is OK for me to put a fountain, crystals or coins to enhance my home's Feng Shui.
Shalom bayit (peace in the home) is something I subscribe to, and anything that should brings peace, love and joy into a home should is more important than being judged by outsiders."
Rebbitzen Nechama Eilfort, who teaches at the Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach, CA shared: “The xmas tree has never been considered a symbol of peace. If anything it represented a connection to German culture as the 'modern' custom of decorating a tree at home started in Germany.
It is clearly not 'fine' to have an xmas tree or fir wreaths for Jews. The star at the top represents the star of Bethlehem that appeared on the eve of the birth of the xtian god. There are many suggestions that the use of the tree has pagan origins in which case it falls under the 'asheira' prohibition.
Use by Jews suggests a desire to assimilate and appear no different from the surrounding nations. This is the antitheses of Judaism. It is the role of a Jew to be a light among the Nations. To stand out, not to blend in.
When faced with the type of anti semitism we are faced with today it is important to react by being proud, visible, religiously active Jews.”
Rabbi Ze’ev Smason, who is the spiritual leader of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion (St. Louis, MO), shared his thoughts on the topic, stating that “any knowledgeable Christian would object to the suggestion that a Christmas tree has no Christian religious meaning, just as a knowledgeable Jew would object to the suggestion that the menorah or Star of David are secular symbols. However, we need go no further than to look at the word 'Christmas' of 'Christmas tree' to see the tree's connection to Christian belief. Regarding the question, "Is it OK for Jews to have a Christmas tree in their home?", the answer is an unequivocal "No."
Judaism contains a richness and depth with its 613 mitzvos (commandments) that enables every Jew the opportunity to connect with the Almighty, our fellow man, one's Jewish identity, and universal and spiritual truths. When Judaism is transmitted in a meaningful, relevant fashion, it becomes obvious that our laws and traditions contain within them the opportunity to fulfill and satisfy our spiritual yearnings. To any Jew who feels the inclination to turn to non-Jewish religious symbols such as the Christmas tree for spiritual fulfillment, I say: "Check out your own heritage first."
Sara Atkins of Wynnewood, PA, believes that “people should actually learn about Hanukkah –– not the story they tell about the oil but the real story, but about the struggle and why we (Maccabees) fought and won. Maybe if people REALLY understood Hanukkah they wouldn't be running so quickly to put up a tree. Or what the military victory, was really about. Hanukkah is celebrating the victory of yet another group trying to assimilate us –– and getting us to shed Judaism –– but it didn’t work, we fought and we won. Hanukkah is basically a big old celebration of stopping assimilation.”
For me (Vicki Polin), I did not grow up with any formal Jewish education, nor were my parents or grandparents holocaust survivors. My parents would never allowed a Christmas tree in our home. When I was younger, my sisters and I would go over to a neighbors home to decorate their tree. I personally remember feeling out of place doing so. I remember my father explaining to us that Jews are not christian, nor do we celebrate christian holidays such as Christmas –– for that reason, we do not have a Christmas tree. My mother then went on and reminded us about the holocaust –– and how people hated us [Jews] because our belief system was different. My mother continued by reminding us of the number of innocent people, including Jews who perished in the holocaust –– and that in honor of their memory we do NOT practice another faith, nor bring icons or symbolism's of the other faiths into our home.
The topic of not having Christmas trees in our home was one of the many family traditions my parents passed down to the next generation –– along with the importance of understanding and accepting cultural differences amongst our friends. Even though we never had any real formal Jewish education, my parents wanted my sisters and to be proud of our ethnicity and faith.
I personally would never bring a Christmas tree, nor anything representative of another faith into my home. Yet I do believe since one of the major premises of Judaism is the fact that we all have free will, I personally believe it has to be an individual decision to choose what is best for each individual family’s situation and home.
END NOTE: According to Rebbitzen Eilfort an asherah was a tree that represented fertility and goddess worship. That it was an evergreen tree (ie one that didn't die in the winter) would make sense.
There is a Biblical prohibition as well as a positive commandment to not set up and to cut down any trees that represent asherah worship.
Many pagan tribes had a great fear of winter and death (see Beowulf) and created rituals to calm those fears, such as placing evergreen wreaths at doorways etc.
Deuteronomy 16:21 states that Hashem hated Asherim whether rendered as poles— "Do not set up any [wooden] Asherah [pole] beside the altar you build to the Lord your God"— or as living trees— "You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the Lord your God which you shall make". That Asherahs were not always living trees is shown in 1 Kings 14:23: "their asherim , beside every luxuriant tree". Exodus 34:13 states: "Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles."