We Were Really Jewish. And Had a Christmas Tree.

It’s been more than 65 years, but through the mists of time. I remember its smell of evergreen as if it were yesterday. 

Our apartment living room on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  A tiny blue wooden table where, to the joy of my tiny brother and me, my mother had placed a tiny Christmas tree. 

Eventually we moved to the suburbs, where we had a bigger Christmas tree with presents underneath.I remember one year when, as a surprise and show of appreciation, my brother and I cleaned up all the ripped-open wrappings before our parents came down on Christmas morning. Surprise! My father had wanted to film the exploded bounty under the Christmas tree after the kids opened their presents.

We pulled the paper out of the trash and recreated our Christmas.

This partaking of the American dream lasted throughout my teens, with my Jewish family gathering for our Jewish Christmas, exchanging gifts by the even bigger Christmas tree at our cousins’ house.

We lived next door to the president of Temple Israel, our local Reform synagogue. I went to Sunday school. My brother celebrated his bar mitzvah (girls weren’t bat mitzvahed yet except in Reconstructionist Judaism). And we continued to have a Christmas tree. Yes, we also had a menorah—introduced at the same time as the Christmas tree. But the miracle of Hanukkah couldn’t hold a candle to the magic of Christmas. 

Many, many years later, I felt embarrassed. But not too embarrassed to seek out Christmas at its source the year I was checking out my Jewish roots in Jerusalem.

I made the trip to Bethlehem in 1972—Christmas brought to you by the Israel Defense Forces, guarding the bus route to the Church of the Nativity. By now, firmly Jewish in my identity, I identified with the Christians as the local minority in the Holy Land.

Once I became a Jewish professional, I hid the fact that I’d had a Christmas tree growing up. It was a parallel shame to the years when I would never tell anyone that I’d had an abortion. Not even when I was doing abortion counseling, telling women, “Don’t be ashamed. You have the right to an abortion.” By the time I was a Jewish professional, it was fine to share with the world that I’d ended a pregnancy, including the details of how I had fantasized driving my car into a brick wall if I hadn’t been able get an abortion.   

Comfortable with my abortion, less comfortable with my Christmas tree, I was more or less OK playing Christmas carols on the street corners of New York with the New York Gay Community Marching Band in the late 1970s. Well, not totally comfortable. I was working for the United Jewish Appeal (now United Jewish Communities), and I would wonder what would be more embarrassing if someone from UJA saw me—the fact that I was playing Christmas carols on my piccolo or that I was in a gay organization.… I bowed out.

For everything there is a season. And I now see my mom’s giving us a Christmas tree as part of the 1950s assimilated American Jews wanting their children to have it all. And we did. 

In my teens, at post-confirmation class in the rabbi’s study at Temple Israel, Rabbi Shankman, in stentorian tones, introduced the subject of intermarriage. The set up: We knew how annoying it is when someone in our family doesn’t squeeze the toothpaste out of the tube in the same way we do. Can we imagine the friction if the issue wasn’t toothpaste, but religion—if we were married to someone who wasn’t Jewish. My sophisticated teenage mind pondered this. And I thought, isn’t it a little late to come out against intermarriage?

As it happened, I ended up marrying someone Jewish, and  I’m repelled by the concept of a Hanukkah bush.  But walking along the sidewalks of New York in December, I will cross the street to get near the urban pop-up forests of Christmas trees, offered for sale, with their fragrant piney smell.

Amy Stone is a founding mother of Lilith, now a contributing editor and an ongoing Lilith blogger. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.

One comment on “We Were Really Jewish. And Had a Christmas Tree.

  1. Katherine Olstein on

    My family were really Jewish, and had Christmas trees, too, because my father wanted (us) to be American, more than anything else. This year, I bought some evergreen branches for a vase in my house, just to have that piney aroma somewhere close.

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