The evergreen issue arises again for interfaith families

NEW YORK — Rabbi Mark Levin planned to attend a ritual circumcision this holiday season just a few feet away from a Christmas tree.

The Reform rabbi didn't know about the decorated evergreen until the baby's mother, who is Jewish and one of his congregants, called to make the arrangements and mentioned the tree as an afterthought.

Levin, the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, Kan., said he'll still go to the ceremony. But it doesn't make him happy to see a Jewish child grow up with a Christian symbol in the living room.

"Clearly, I don't agree that people ought to have Christmas trees in their homes," he said. "On the other hand, I do agree that people have autonomous rights to do in their homes as they please."

With abundant commercials, carols and "holiday specials" crowding the airwaves, and bright red and green decorations adorning most neighborhoods, American Jews can scarcely ignore Christmas. Many complain of the "December dilemma," the feeling that Chanukah is overshadowed by the holiday commemorating Jesus' birth.

But for Jews married to Christians, December creates a different dilemma: It is the time of year when the cultural differences between partners are most evident.

Even in interfaith families where the children are being raised solely as Jews, the Christian spouse often wants to have a Christmas tree.

For many Christians, and even those who have converted to Judaism, the tree is simply a nostalgic symbol of family togetherness.

"I will have people say, 'Don't make me give up my tree — I could care less about Christian theology, but it reminds me of a fun time in my childhood,' " said Levin.

Ellen Morgan, a Catholic married to a Jew, Sheldon Zenner, in Evanston, Ill., said, "Non-Christians tend to view the tree as something religious, much more than Christians do."

Trees have "nothing to do with my Catholic upbringing," she said, adding, "for someone raised a devout Christian, Christmas is a Nativity scene."

As for the Jewish partner, while some "are delighted to have a tree in their house — it's something they have always wanted," a lot "can't stomach it," observed Rabbi Sandra Cohen of Temple Micah, a Reform synagogue in Denver.

For some, the failure to stomach the tree stems from having an explicitly Christian symbol, while others worry about being embarrassed when their Jewish friends and family visit.

In a column in the current issue of the Internet magazine, Marlena Thompson of northern Virginia writes about her angst over whether or not to allow her Episcopal husband to bring a Christmas tree into the house. Initially, she writes, it was "out of the question."

"According to my logic at that time (a logic some would likely call convoluted), it wasn't nearly as culturally disloyal to marry someone who wasn't Jewish as it was to have a Christmas tree," Thompson writes.

Families deal with the issue in different ways.

Thompson ignored the pleas of her husband and daughter for a tree until her husband had a stroke four years ago. Moved by his nostalgia for Christmases past, Thompson relented, writing, "I had for too long been selfish in my stance against the tree."

For years, Morgan's family also avoided a Christmas tree in the house, a decision eased by the fact that they visit her relatives for Christmas each year. Most Decembers, they also spend a weekend with friends at a Wisconsin farmhouse, where they do "Christmasy things," like sledding, chopping down a fir tree and decorating it.

But 11 winters ago, their eldest son Elie — then 4 — asked his father if he could bring home a tree. His father said, "We'll cut one down that is just your size." That has become a family tradition, although if they don't go to Wisconsin, they do not go out and buy a tree.

Morgan's husband is "comfortable having a tree in the house given how the tradition developed," said Morgan, noting that the tree has become a symbol of the family weekends with friends, rather than of Christmas.

"His mother, who's a Holocaust survivor and very observant, is not at all offended by it," said Morgan.

Sometimes the Jewish partner feels guilty asking his or her spouse to give up the cherished symbol.

Cohen knows of a family in which the children are being raised Jewish, even though the mother is Christian. "The father said, 'She does so much, she brings the kids to synagogue, she's willing to raise the kids Jewish. How can I deny her this one thing?' " said Cohen.

"The tree becomes the 'Here is my nod,' " said Cohen. "We're not going to do church, baptize the kids or any of that, but we'll have a tree."

Traditional rabbis — who speak out strongly against intermarriage — generally do not have any dealings with Christmas trees. But in the Reform world, where congregations have actively reached out to interfaith families, rabbis have a range of attitudes toward trees in their congregants' homes.

Levin and Cohen say Christmas trees are more Christian and more confusing to children being raised Jewish than most interfaith couples would like to admit.

People think that "because they're calling it a secular symbol it is in fact that, but our culture has a great deal to determine what it means," said Levin.

Cohen said, "At its heart, Christmas is a religious holiday — it's about God coming to earth as a human being."

"I think it's better for children to know which community they are part of," said Cohen. "But on the other hand, I don't think having a Christmas tree means you can't walk into my synagogue. It means you're on a path and have to figure this out."

Like the upcoming circumcision, or brit milah, Levin will attend, Cohen once showed up to do an in-home baby-naming ceremony, only to discover that the family expected her to do it right in front of their Christmas tree. She insisted on moving the ceremony to a different room.

"I was out of seminary six months, and it didn't occur to me to ask about whether there would be a tree," recalled Cohen. "I didn't feel I needed to say I can't give your child a Hebrew name because of this, but I also didn't feel like I had to do it in that room."

Such experiences are so common, said Cohen, the issue has come up on the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis' e-mail bulletin board. "A number of people have said the easiest thing to do is just not do ceremonies in the home in December," she said.

Rabbi Sam Gordon, of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Ill., said, "My feeling is that the Christmas tree is just a tree."