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!
There’s something prominently displayed at the Mississippi Governor’s mansion: a nativity scene. Seeing it recently took me by surprise.
When I asked my friends about this, they laughed and reminded me that I was not in New York anymore. My adopted home of Jackson, Mississippi is smack in the middle of the Bible Belt, and while Jews all across the country feel the December dilemma, it is especially strong in the South.
Hanukkah, historically considered a minor holiday, was embraced more broadly by Jews wanting to fit in with fellow Americans celebrating the holiday season. Menorahs became standard in homes, businesses, and eventually, the public square, particularly in towns with large Jewish populations. It led me to wonder how these public manifestations of Jewish identity came to be, and what that means in a predominately Christian place like Jackson.
Most people don’t realize that the menorah’s public face in America began in 1974. That’s when Lubativch leader Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson began pressing his local emissaries to erect menorahs in town squares where holiday displays were already present. Liberal Jewish organizations criticized the decision, but Schneerson defended the campaign. Over the next few years, menorahs began springing up in cities and towns across America. The campaign was so successful that by 1979, the Carter administration arranged for a giant menorah to be built on the White House lawn. By 1982, President Ronald Reagan designated the White House menorah as the National Menorah.
Many Jews, loyal to the concept of a separation of church and state, took issue with menorahs being placed alongside Christian symbols in the public square because all religious symbols on government property represented an endorsement of religion and therefore a violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. For them, these public displays of Jewish religious symbols threatened the separation of church and state, a foundational principle that served to protect the religious freedom of the Jewish community. As such, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) fought against them which while the National Jewish Commission On Law And Public Affairs (COLPA), the litigation arm of Agudath Israel, and other Orthodox religious Jewish non-governmental organizations fought to keep them in the public square.
The battle came to a head in 1989 in County of Alleghany v. ACLU. This case looked at the constitutionality of two holiday displays in downtown Pittsburgh. One was a nativity scene, standing in a very prominent position in the courthouse. The other display was an 18-foot tall Hanukkah menorah donated by a group of Lubavitcher Hasidim accompanied by a 45-foot tall Christmas tree, at the base of which was a sign stating “Salute to Liberty.”
In a splintered decision that included nine separate written opinions, the court determined that the display of a menorah next to a Christmas tree in a public square could be appropriate, holding that the menorah and the Christmas tree were secular symbols, thus making the display compatible with the First Amendment, while the display of the nativity scene inside the courthouse was deemed unconstitutional, because it was a religious symbol. However, for many Jews, the Menorah holds immense religious significance It’s a complicated ruling.
The allowance of menorahs in the public square does potentially open the door for other religious symbols on public grounds. Religious symbols like nativity scenes, particularly in the Bible Belt. By pushing for menorahs displayed in the public square, ultra-Orthodox Jews also paved the way for public displays of other religious groups’ items.
What holiday symbols do you think should be allowed in the public square during the month of December? Is it better to have all, or nothing? How does it make us feel to have some-but-not-all in many public squares?
Don’t feel badly if you are torn; the courts have been as well. Here’s a list of other court cases dealing with public menorah displays. Happy Hanukkah!
 See Dianne Ashton, Hanukkah in America: A History (New York: NYU Press, 2013).
About this time last year, I remember walking around the streets of Jerusalem, counting the menorahs I could see in windowsills and doorways. I was excited and inspired—I had never seen such a prevalent, and beautiful, public display of Jewish ritual before.
On Hanukkah, we are told to light the menorah and place it at the entrance to our homes, a place easily visible to those passing by in the street. Over the years, the tradition has changed and many place the menorah in the window, facing the street. The rabbis say that one should choose the window most visible from the street, whether that window is in a bedroom or a family room. If many people pass by the entrance to an apartment (say, in the stairwell), the proper place for the menorah is just outside the entrance to the apartment. All this is to say that the menorah should be positioned in the place where it will be seen by most people, in order to publicize the holiday.
This year, I’m going to place the menorah in my front windowsill of my apartment in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m going to do so without a second thought. I have the privilege of placing a menorah in my windowsill without the fear of persecution in response to this public display of observance. What’s more, I do so with great pride and ownership of the ritual.
This year, next to my menorah, I’m going to place a banner that signifies the meaning of Hanukkah to me, a holiday that’s meant to bring light into our world. As a Jew devoted to social justice, to me that light represents equal rights for all. That light represents my belief that all people, regardless of religion or race or gender, should be able to walk down the street without fear of persecution or violence. Everyone should feel privileged enough to place the equivalent of their menorah in the windowsill.
Over the past weeks, as crowds have gathered across the country to demand an end to police brutality and racial violence, I’ve often wondered what I can do as a Jew and an ally to support this work. So this year, I’m adding a simple object to my windowsill—a sign that reads “Black Lives Matter.” There are similar Hanukkah campaigns and initiatives being encouraged by many national Jewish organizations, such as Bend The Arc and Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.
Hanukkah means “dedication.” This year, I am re-dedicating my Hanukkah. I hope you will join me.