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(photo credit: Matthew Wagner)
Crosses, nativity scenes, images of Mary of Magdalene and Jesus and other blatantly religious symbols are conspicuously absent from Alexander Zelentsov's impressive array of tinsel, Christmas trees, Santa Claus dolls, twinkle lights, rope lights and shiny, matte, pearl and metallic Christmas ball ornaments.
Zelentsov's wares are arranged on long, narrow tables stretching hundreds of meters inside the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. Though a Santa Claus cap adorns his head, Zelentsov is Jewish, and says he has been selling Christmas paraphernalia for six years.
"Every year I see more and more Israeli natives buying. It is something nice for the house," adds Zelentsov, winking knowingly.
I ask why he does not sell crosses and other religious items.
"That is something else," he responds. "What I sell has nothing to do with religion. In Russia we did not celebrate December 25. We only celebrated the New Year. Everyone had trees but no one was religious. The communists forbid religion."
Zelentsov uses the open, public spaces of malls and bus stations to peddle his goods, but not all malls are so accommodating. Two years ago, in Ashdod's C-Mall, his business was abruptly halted after an unidentified rabbi complained to local authorities. The rabbi, who was invited to light Hanukka candles in the mall, said it was prohibited to do so in the presence of Zelentsov's idolatrous Christmas trees.
Zelentsov says he is negotiating for space in Tel Aviv's Azrieli Mall for next year.
"But they don't want me to display too many trees. Just one or two."
Asked if any native Israelis buy his trees, Zelentsov, looking apprehensively at my kippa, beard and tzitzit, replied they did not.
"I think Israelis are afraid of what their neighbors would say," he replied.
But customers at the Ramat Aviv branch of Happening, a gift store that sells Christmas trees during the holiday season, do not seem too concerned about what their neighbors would think.
"I'd say about 80% of the people who buy the trees are native Israelis," says Galia Levchenko, a young Russian Jew who has been working at Happening for six years. "I've never seen so many Israelis buy them before."
THE HAPPENING chain has close to 50 branches all over the nation. Many of them, including branches in Haifa and the Tel Aviv area, sell the trees. One of three Happening branches in Jerusalem, located on Ben Yehuda St., also sells them.
Levchenko said that so far she has sold about 20 medium to large size trees (between 1.2 and 2.5 meters high) to native Israelis. Prices for these trees range between NIS 300 and NIS 600. Another 40 small trees were also bought by Israelis.
"We weren't used to so many native Israelis buying the trees. So we began asking them why. Everybody said there was nothing religious about the whole thing. It was just a reason for a party. They got the idea from TV or from trips abroad."
Alice, who works with Galia, said she feels uncomfortable selling the trees.
"I let Galia take care of customers who want to buy them."
Alice, who wears tight, low-cut jeans and a tight tee-shirt, appears secular. So why does she balk when it comes to Christmas trees?
"I come from a religious home. I don't know. It feels wrong."
Pinchas Yadin, 65, the owner of the Ramat Aviv branch of Happening, also seems uncomfortable with what he is doing, and contacts me after he discovers that Galia and Alice were interviewed.
"I only began selling the trees after I was flooded by requests from foreign embassies," explains Yadin, who says he was born in Israel and puts on phylacteries every day.
"I am really sorry that so many Israelis demand these things. If I would have known that most of my customers are Jewish, I never would have sold them in the first place."
He said he would probably stop it next year.
Nonetheless, some Israelis do want to have a Christmas tree in their home.
"There is something really beautiful about a Christmas tree in the house," says L., a Jewish woman born and bred in Tel Aviv. "The kids love it. We put presents under the tree."
L. is a high-ranking sales manager at Tiv Ta'am, a chain of 14 supermarkets that specialize in pork products and other non-kosher foods. She prefers not to disclose her name.
L. says her mother and father, who were also born in Israel, are opposed to the Christmas tree, so she "simply [doesn't] invite them over during this time of the year."
EILON ZARMON, owner and manager of the Zarmon Goldman ad agency, says Christmas, for many Israelis, is part of what he calls "international culture."
"Upper middle-class and upper-class secular Israelis are open to the big world," says Zarmon. "They vacation abroad. They are exposed to Western culture that dominates the world. They feel at home with Christmas trees."
However, Zarmon is quick to add that as an advertiser, he is careful not to use Christmas trees or other Christian motifs in ad campaigns.
"It is always a good idea to stay away from any religious symbols, even Jewish ones. They tend to be emotionally charged. Christian symbols conjure up all sorts of negative memories like the Inquisition."
Moshe Zada, a native Israeli Jew of Persian decent, owns a small store near the old Tel Aviv central bus station that sells Christmas trees and Christmas paraphernalia.
"All of my customers are Russians or foreign workers," Zada insists, sounding anxious. "No Jews would want to have a tree in their home. Look for yourself," he says, pointing to a thin, blond man with a tattoo of an eagle on his forearm.
Then Lilach Cohen, 31, of Ramat Gan, interrupts to ask the price of a tree.
Cohen says she is buying the tree for a Christmas party she is having at her house.
"It is just another opportunity to party," says Cohen, who senses the need to address the religious issue, and adds, "I am secure enough with my faith in God to do something like this. The tree has no religious meaning for me whatsoever."
Cohen said she got the idea for the tree from TV.
Zada seems uncomfortable with Cohen's choice, but defends his sale.
"Listen, a guy has to make a living," he says. "What can I do?"
EVEN IN the most secular Israeli circles many consider a Christmas tree anathema. MK Ronnie Brizon of the staunchly secular Shinui Party says the phenomenon of Israelis celebrating with a Christmas tree is "weird and pathetic."
"It reminds me of German Jews in the 1920s and 1930s who celebrated Weinachten [German for Christmas]. I'm not saying it caused the Holocaust. But it didn't delay it either.
"A gentleman has to play the hand he is dealt. Making a mishmash of religious symbols and identities is inauthentic and doesn't feel right."
Both Brizon's visceral abhorrence of Christmas trees and Zarmon's attempts to emphasize the "international folklore" dimension of the Christmas tree are inexplicable. Both men lead secular lives. They eat non-kosher foods, they desecrate Shabbat. So do others interviewed for this article. Yet they all are either uncomfortable with the idea of selling Christmas trees to Jews or feel the need to justify themselves by making it clear that the Christmas tree has no religious meaning.
According to Rabbi Menahem Brod, spokesman for Chabad-Lubavitch in Israel, hassidic thought explains that there is a "spark" of holiness in every Jewish soul that fights to prevent total detachment from Judaism.
"Jews who are so distant from Judaism that they do not understand the idolatrous aspect of the Christmas tree do not feel threatened by it.
"Others, like Brizon, have a deeper understanding of both Judaism and the Christmas tree. They realize that they have reached a point of no return. That a Christmas tree is not just international folklore. It is idolatry. So their soul awakens."
Brod says that in history there were many cases in which completely assimilated Jews preferred death to forced conversion for no apparent reason. Brod says that according to Chabad hassidic thought there is a fundamental difference between the soul of a Jew and the soul of a gentile.
"On Mount Sinai a contract of fidelity was signed between God and the Jewish people. The Jewish soul remains obligated to this contract."
In contrast to Chabad's Brod, Christian clergy in the Holy Land welcome the trend among Jewish Israelis to own Christmas trees.
Dr. Munib Younan, Palestinian Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, says he is particularly proud since the Christmas tree originates in Germany, the birthplace of Lutheranism.
"Our feasts are not just for Christians," said Younan, whose church runs one of the finest schools for Arabs in the Holy Land.
"Jesus is for everyone. If our Jewish brothers and sisters want to celebrate with us I welcome them. In this country we have always borrowed traditions from one another. This borrowing, without denying one's own faith in the process, is part of true coexistence.
"When Israeli and Palestinian children celebrate together the light, the life and the joy brought by Jesus's coming, it is a sign of hope."
HOWEVER, Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel, the chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, is appalled at the idea that citizens of his city, like Lilach Cohen, have Christmas trees.
"It is idolatry," says Ariel. "The evergreen tree symbolizes that man's [Jesus's] resurrection and immortality. Jews are prohibited from selling them to other Jews because they are placing a stumbling block before them."
Ariel said that he had not decided yet whether Jewish law obligated a Jewish salesperson, like Alice at Happening, to quit if the store in which he or she worked decided to sell the trees.
"But it is definitely prohibited to join a company that sells them." Ariel said that Jews who had a Christmas tree obviously lacked basic Jewish identity. "It is the most extreme type of assimilation to embrace such blatantly Christian symbolism."
Muslims are not as antagonistic as Jews to the Christian symbolism of Christmas trees.
Rula Shubeita, a Catholic tour guide from East Jerusalem, says many of her Muslim neighbors also use Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, especially if the wife is Christian.
"I think they do it out of jealousy," she says. "The tree is beautiful. It brings joy."
Aroub Rinawi, a Muslim Israeli and CEO of the Arab Sector in McCann Erickson, one of Israel's largest ad agencies, said Muslims and Christians celebrate the Christmas together.
"In mixed cities like Nazareth we advertise on billboards. There is no Muslim animosity whatsoever. I remember as a girl in kindergarten we had Santa Claus and Christmas decorations and presents.
"But in predominantly Jewish cities, advertisers are careful not to use Christian motifs."
Rachel, an employee of Elite whose job is to arrange her company's products on supermarket shelves and make sure stock is replenished, said Elite markets several products with Christian motifs.
"We have a chocolate bar with Santa Claus on it. We also sell a Christmas stocking with candies in it.
"But during a meeting our boss told us that these products are only for the Arabs, places like Nazareth. None of it comes to supermarkets in Jewish cities.
"It is a good thing, too," Rachel added, "because I don't want to have anything to do with that stuff."