IS THIS a secular symbol, too?.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The holiday season is upon us. It is a very anxious time of year. For American Jews these days of December are especially tumultuous. Of course there are hanukkia lightings, Hanukka gifts, family gatherings and many other mundane seasonal concerns, but there is another one, that most Americans don’t have to face: does one get a Christmas tree? Even very secular progressive Jewish types, the ones who devour pork on Yom Kippur and think Jerusalem was a Palestinian city before King David, fear this forestry monster. For if it is allowed to enter their premises, it must surely compromise their Jewishness.
Jews are willing to fast on Ramadan in solidarity with Syrian refugees and celebrate Kwanzaa without being able to spell it. The vast majority of American Jews view the tree (only 32% according to the 2013 Pew Research poll “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” have one) as the final “red line” of assimilation. This Christmas tree fear-mongering is one of few remaining threads tying together the fraying tapestry of the Jewish Diaspora. This struggle with the tree has become an integral part of the Jewish tradition and, as it happens with many protracted fights, the danger may no longer be real.
The origins of the Christmas tree tradition are indeed religious and Christian, as the name suggests, and have roots in pagan customs. As a Christian symbol, however, the tree is a relative novice. The first historical record to mention it dates back to 17th century Germany. However, over the past hundred years the tree has secularized. The Bolsheviks made a huge effort to reform the Christmas tree into the New Year tree. The propaganda machine succeeded and for many millions of people in the countries formerly under communist rule the tree lost its religious significance altogether.
The rest of Europe, with its diminishing religiosity, has been following suit.
Even in the US, the most religious of all Western democracies, the trend is to view the tree as a extra-religious symbol. According to the 2013 Pew Research poll “Celebrating Christmas and Holidays, Then and Now” 73% of unaffiliated Americans planned to have a tree.
Christmas trees placed in public spaces are commonly devoid of any religious symbols such as crosses or angels. It is beyond doubt that the tree and its significance have moved from being an article of Christianity to becoming a symbol of the holiday season and Western culture in general. Indeed, its threat to Jewish identity is seriously overestimated: nobody complains of being less Jewish for not working on Sunday.
Inside the Jewish community, the very religious, the ultra-Orthodox element of all shades, remains the most steadfast opponent of tree rehabilitation. They claim the tree is a purely Christian symbol and as such has no place in a Jewish house, especially around the time of Hanukka, the holiday that embodies the struggle of Jews against foreign religious oppression.
The irony of this claim, coming from the ultra-Orthodox world, would make even Sholom Aleichem, the Shakespeare of Jewish irony, laugh like Santa Claus.
Here we have a group of people who have adapted the dress code (the caftan, the fedora, the shtreimel) of the villagers of Carpathian Mountains of the late 17th century. Few Parisian fashions have survived for that long.
The entire hassidic zeitgeist, with its music, lyrics and predilection for drinking and merriment, was borrowed from the early hassids’ Slav neighbors. Were a Bobover Hassid of today to find himself in a Ukrainian village of 300 years ago none of the villagers would find him alien or even strange. He would fit right in.
Every Lubavitcher house has a life-size portrait of late Rebbe hanging on the wall in the dining room. From afar the smiling elder leader with the waving hand resembles Vladimir Lenin addressing a proletariat gathering, making an unsuspecting visitor familiar with Soviet art pause for a second.
If that is not a cultural borrowing from the Marxist religion (and arguably breaking one of the commandments), then what is? Obviously, none of the above has made Judaism less Jewish, but only enriched it with the foreign element.
The Soviet Jews have played a significant role in making the Christmas tree kosher. They don’t view the tree as a Christian emblem. For them the tree represents the spirit of the only holiday under the Soviet regime devoid of any political meaning. In many ways it is a symbol of hope amid harsh Russian winter, a drab Ukrainian caftan warming up Jewish soul.
There are many ways to accommodate the tree without chipping away at the Hanukka celebrations. The tree may be brought into a house after Christmas. The Hanukka Bush, the “shabbat elevator” of the holiday season, must leave our lexicon once and for all. There is no need to be afraid of this beautiful flora from depths of the forest, no need to waste our energy on imaginary enemies when the real ones are plentiful. The tree will only make our homes more beautiful and ourselves stronger to meet another year of our eternal struggle.
The author lives and works in Silicon Valley, California. He is a founding member of San Francisco Voice for Israel.