By Guest Blogger Hillary Zaken
“You have a tree in your house?” my mother asked me. “Why on earth would you have a tree in your Jewish home?”
Just for the record, my mother is what is known as a cultural Jew. Not observant, not religious, but very Jewish. I, too, am steeped in the traditions of Jewish culture, but agnostic. My two sons were born in Israel, where I lived for 14 years. We are all dual Israeli-American citizens. We speak Hebrew. The boys attend a Jewish day school. At least one believes strongly in God. Both celebrate, love and have great pride in their Jewish identities. I work as a Jewish professional at Elon University Hillel. Our lives are very, very Jewish.
But yes, we have a tree in our home for the first time ever. The box said “Christmas Tree” but we are calling it a Holiday Tree, for we celebrate more than one winter holiday in our house.
You see, my partner is not Jewish, and neither is his daughter. And although they love the Jewish traditions that are an integral part of our life together, for them, something was missing in our winter celebrations. And for us, part of building a family is sharing our traditions, creating new ones, and celebrating together. What but love and compromise builds a strong family?
We light the Hanukkah menorah, and let the flickering candlelight illuminate our family celebration for eight nights. My stepdaughter Rayah, who was not born Jewish, lights the candles, says the blessings, sings the songs, plays dreidel, and celebrates with traditional jelly donuts and latkes alongside my sons Lahav and Abir. And the blue holiday tree glistens in the living room.
For many years, within the Jewish community, the conventional wisdom spoke against intermarriage, against bringing anything even vaguely Christian into a Jewish home.
While I was a child, my grandmother, of blessed memory, would answer even a well-intentioned “Merry Christmas,” with a huffy “I don’t celebrate Christmas,” since she saw the holiday greeting as an incorrect assumption that everyone is Christian.
But Jewish life in the United States in 2017 is very different than half a century ago. Fifty years ago, only one in ten Jews was in an interfaith marriage. Now, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 44% of Jewish respondents are intermarried.
Like most of my peers, I believe in multiculturalism, in interfaith, and in blended communities. I have no fear of inviting a different tradition into my home. I believe that we have more in common than what divides us. I know that my children will grow up Jewish, knowing and loving the traditions of our culture and our religion, even if we have a small blue holiday tree in our living room.
In the story of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights celebrated this year from December 12-20, the Maccabees fought against the Greeks who sought to eradicate their culture and forbid the practice of the Jewish religion. The Greeks wanted the Jewish people to give up their history, their identity, their unique practices, their very selves.
Only after a surprisingly successful armed uprising by a small and motley crew of Jewish rebels against the powerful Greek empire were the Jews permitted to return to their traditions. That victory of the small against the mighty, and the miracle of the small jar of oil that lasted eight long days to rededicate the Jewish temple, are the Hanukkah traditions we celebrate today.
On Hanukkah, we rejoice in our victory against those who tried – and failed – to outlaw our religion, to forbid us from fully expressing ourselves, and our pride in our ethnic and religious identity. Many Jews see this holiday as the epitome of the argument against assimilation, perhaps even against intermarriage.
So perhaps it seems ironic that I am sharing my story of a holiday tree in a Jewish home as a Hanukkah story.
I don’t see it that way. I see Hanukkah as a celebration of Jewish continuity, of cohesiveness against forces that tried to forbid us from being ourselves. If my family still delights in Jewish traditions today, in North Carolina, in 2017, we are victorious. Our very existence as a people, after generations of being a persecuted minority population throughout the world, is not a miracle, but a testament to our strength.
Having a holiday tree in my home won’t make my family less Jewish. Nor will engaging in a Christmas celebration with my partner’s family, nor having a picture with Santa.
We can explore other religious traditions, we can try the different interfaith options available around the Triad, and we can learn how other people celebrate while still being ourselves. We don’t need to fear that someone will forbid us from being Jewish like the Maccabees of yore; rather, we can rejoice in our own Judaism while experiencing the beauty of the winter holiday season.
The children of intermarriage who are raised Jewish are identifying as Jews more and more, according to that same Pew study. Jewish children can grow up with a holiday tree and still speak Hebrew, celebrate a bar mitzvah, and be a proud Jew.
When someone says “Merry Christmas” to me on the street, I respond with “Same to you, and Happy Hanukkah.” I appreciate their goodwill, and wish them a wonderful holiday season, but I, like my grandmother, also want to point out my Jewishness, lest people forget the menorah alongside the holiday tree.