I am engaged to a wonderful man – who is not Jewish. Over the course of our relationship, we’ve talked a lot about what our interfaith life will look like. But talking about a Christmas tree, something seemingly so small, was always put on the back burner to make room for conversations about what traditions the wedding ceremony will involve, and how to raise our future children.
Last year was our first Christmas together living under the same roof, and we were saved from the discussion yet again because our apartment was too small to even conceive of displaying a tree. We have since moved to a larger, more tree-accommodating apartment, and this year the conversation became real. It was very deep, and went something like this:
Erik: Can we please get a tree?
Erik: Like, right now?
And off we went to pick out our tree and all of its fixings. A couple of hours later, our living room glowed from its lights and we sat on the couch tired, happy, and thoroughly impressed with ourselves. Then, my mind began to wander.
What did this mean? What would my mother say? Am I going to be judged for putting this up in my apartment?
I found myself in an after-the-fact December Dilemma, and all of my thoughts were verbalized through the sentence, “I can’t believe there’s a Christmas tree in my apartment.” I didn’t know that uttering those words would lead to a learning experience!
My fiancé Erik, who is originally from Ukraine, told me that in the Soviet Union, in the Communists’ effort to stifle religion, Christmas trees were forbidden. So instead, folks put up New Year’s trees – a tradition that many continue today. The tree therefore can carry with it cultural as opposed to religious significance.
“Cool!” I thought. “We have a New Year’s tree – NOT a Christmas tree! So much easier to explain to family! So much easier to confess to friends!”
It appeared that my personal December Dilemma had been solved thanks to a quick history lesson from my fiancé. I have learned through this process that feelings about Christmas/New Year’s trees are fluid. So where are my feelings now?
Well, the tree has been up for a few weeks, and with each day that passes… I love it more. I appreciated the history lesson from Erik, but I’ve since realized that labeling the tree is unimportant to me. What is important is that it makes someone I love comfortable and happy, and, whatever its significance or connotations, that’s enough for me. Appreciating a part of his identity doesn’t take away from my identity, and I understand now that that is why it was so easy for me to agree to get one. My heart got it before my head did.
There is no single “right answer” that will apply to everyone, when it comes to deciding on shared practices and rituals—at this holiday season, or at any time of year. I am also very glad that there are so many resources, like Jewish Outreach Institute/Big Tent Judaism, that can support interfaith families in navigating these conversations and choices in respectful, informed ways.
This year, when I look at the Christmas/New Year’s tree, with its ornaments hung so precisely and its laughably-too-small skirt, all I see is joy, understanding, and respect. I am proudly Jewish, and the tree does not diminish that – and in fact, while a Christmas tree might not be part of my identity, the qualities of joy, understanding, and respect, are ones I try to embody every day.
On the first night of Hanukkah, Erik and I took out our brand new chanukiah (which we also picked out together). We said the blessings, and the candles glowed right alongside the Christmas lights. Who knows how our interfaith traditions will evolve over time, but for now there is no December Dilemma in our apartment. There is love, and learning, and a whole lot of lights.
From my interfaith family to yours, Happy Everything!
Usually we think of small, southern communities as being at least a beat behind their larger counterparts, especially when they have small—even “diminishing”—Jewish populations. Many of these Jewish communities were once thriving, but they have followed the American trend of younger generations abandoning smaller hometowns for larger urban centers.
These communities may be demographically small, but they should be considered ideologically large in their response to those who have intermarried.
How these communities respond should be instructive to other communities, regardless of size or region. It is true that the intermarriage rate—particularly among non-Orthodox Jews—is among the highest in these communities. Even if there is debate among demographers as to the exact rate of intermarriage, what is most important to consider is the trend lines. That’s why the well-practiced response of these communities is so important at a time when the rest of the North American community has finally transcended the question of “Should we reach out to those who have intermarried?” and moved to “How should we reach out to those who have intermarried?”
In a word, the only response of these smaller Southern communities has always been the same: welcome.
To be the most welcoming of communities is the only response possible and that is what these small communities have been doing. The synagogue remains the most numerous of Jewish communal organizations in the United States. In smaller communities, it is often the only Jewish communal institution and serves a multiplicity of functions. That’s why its actions are so demonstrative.
How have these Southern Jewish communities led the way? While institutions in other parts of the country are still debating the roles for those of other religious backgrounds in synagogues throughout the country, many in the South have long seen “non-Jewish partners” take on key roles in their communities.
As part of Jewish Outreach Institute’s ongoing partnership with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, I traveled to Mississippi this past week to serve as faculty at the ISJL’s education conference. I was reminded, again, of how many individuals in these Southern communities might not be Jewish—but are undoubtedly contributing to the Jewish future.
Simply by committing to raise Jewish children, they are contributing to our future; but their involvement goes above and beyond that. Southern congregations recognize this, voting with their feet and extending full synagogue membership to non-Jewish partners. These unsung heroes have joined the boards of synagogues, sometimes a thankless task, and have even become board presidents in some places. They are religious school teachers, and some have even become the directors of their town’s religious schools.
These partners-of-Jews have cast their lot with the Jewish people. The synagogue has become their spiritual home. We welcome them. We applaud them. And we thank so many in the Southern parts of these United States for leading the way, providing an example for the rest of us to follow.
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