A Menorah and A Christmas Tree

This month poses a “December dilemma” for many American Jews, especially those in interfaith relationships. Should you celebrate Chanukah? Christmas? Or both? Many intermarried American Jews with children celebrate Chanukah, now the most popular Jewish holiday. The December dilemma focuses on whether you may also have a sparkling tree in your living room and condone additional gifts on the 25th. Today about a third of self-identified Jews report having a Christmas tree at home, according to a 2013 Pew survey.

The American rabbinate of all denominations strongly object to Jews having Christmas trees. They see the tree as a potent Christian religious symbol that has no place in a Jewish home. After all, Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus as the Messiah, a belief that is inconsistent with Judaism. But Jews who have trees do not see themselves as abandoning their Jewish identity. To the contrary, most report that they are proud to be Jews. They celebrate Christmas as an American secular holiday, akin to Thanksgiving, when family and friends may share a meal.

The anxiety over Christmas trees reflects the deeply paradoxical situation of Jews in the United States. The terrible murders of eleven Jewish worshipers in a Pittsburg synagogue is a powerful reminder that anti-Semitic extremists still exist in America and that their hatred can have deadly consequences. Continued vigilance is warranted. But the fact remains that Jews have achieved an unprecedented level of integration and influence in virtually every facet of American life. Jews are more accepted in America today than they have ever been, at any time or place in a Diaspora community. Since World War II, institutionalized anti-Semitism has virtually disappeared. Jews no longer face discrimination in employment, education, or housing, and they are thriving in virtually every field of public life. According to the Pew Research Center, Jews are the nation’s most highly regarded religious group.

But acceptance has posed challenges to the community’s survival, and intermarriage ranks near the top of the list. Young Jews are marrying out in droves, defying 1,800 years of traditional Jewish law. Among Jews who have married since 2000, about 58% have chosen a non-Jewish spouse. Excluding the Orthodox, 70% have intermarried. Will they and their children think of themselves as Jews?

Not if they have a Christmas tree, according to the rabbi who refused to officiate at my daughter’s wedding. Twenty years ago, Allison fell in love with a young man named Cornelius Olcott V. Needless to say, Cory was not raised in the Jewish faith. Religion was not a big deal to either family, and both families were delighted with the match. Allison told Cory she wanted a Jewish wedding and hoped to raise their children Jewish. Cory had no objection, but he had no interest in converting to Judaism.

In the 1990s, many Reform rabbis refused to perform a Jewish wedding unless the non-Jewish spouse first converted. (This is still the policy for all Conservative and Orthodox rabbis.) Our temple’s senior rabbi declined to officiate, but the new junior rabbi had a more flexible attitude and would sometimes agree to officiate, pending an interview with the couple.

At the interview, the junior rabbi asked Allison and Cory about their plans. They said they would raise the children as Jews. They would join a temple and send the kids to religious school. The kids would celebrate bar or bat mitzvahs. Allison would celebrate Passover and Chanukah and take the kids to High Holy Days services. So far, so good. But then the rabbi asked, “What about Christmas?” Allison responded that they would not celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, but they might have a Christmas tree in the house. It meant something to Cory and, besides, her family had had one when she was small.

The rabbi immediately cut them off and said he would not officiate. The interview was over.

Allison was devastated and humiliated. They had flunked the “Christmas tree test.” I was furious at the rabbi’s behavior. At the very least, I thought, he should have used Allison’s response as an opportunity for further conversation — perhaps to explain why he thought a Christmas tree might send a confusing mixed signal to the children. But to slam the door in their faces was hardly the way to welcome an interfaith couple to the Jewish world.

Such narrow-mindedness, using a Christmas tree as a litmus test, won’t stop intermarriage or help parents pass on a Jewish identity to the next generation. In fact, for some couples the tree may be part of a pragmatic solution.

Allison and Cory found a more tolerant Reform Rabbi to officiate at their wedding. Today they have two children, both of whom have attended religious school and celebrated a Bar and Bat Mitzvah in a welcoming congregation. During the holiday season the family celebrates Chanukah: they light the menorah, the children receive gifts, and we play the dreidel game. The family also has a Christmas tree, and on December 25th the kids receive still more presents, especially from Cory’s family.

I see nothing terribly wrong with this practice, which is common among mixed couples who are raising their children Jewish. My view is: if the non-Jewish parent is willing to join a temple and help raise Jewish children, and a Christmas tree is important to that parent, I think it’s a pretty good bargain. I’m not saying it’s ideal. When you’re trying to instill a Jewish identity in children, I think having a tree may weaken the message. So I fully understand why many Jewish families, including some who are intermarried, prefer to maintain an exclusively Jewish home during the holiday season. But I would ask them to be more tolerant of Jews who think differently. For more than 2,000 years Jewish communities throughout the world have evolved and adopted practices from the broader community. It hasn’t stopped them from raising Jewish kids.

In fact, there are promising signs. The most recent research suggests that a majority of millennials who are children of intermarriage are choosing to identify themselves as Jewish. To those Jewish institutions that are embracing intermarried couples and their children, I say, Bravo! We need this work to maintain a diverse and vibrant community.

I do not think intermarriage in and of itself is the greatest threat to Jewish continuity. Contemporary research suggests a much more nuanced picture. Studies have shown that although intermarriage is certainly a challenge, the increasing “thinness” of Jewish engagement generally, even among people who have two Jewish parents, is a more pressing concern.

The greatest challenge, as I see it, is how to increase the quality of Jewish engagement in a world where intermarriage is not likely to decline. What’s the primary message we should be imparting to today’s Jewish children? I have four grandchildren: Allison and Cory’s two kids, and two who have two Jewish parents. I would give all four of them the same message: “The issue is not whether you marry ‘in’ or ‘out.’ The issue is, do you make the Jewish tradition a meaningful part of your life, and do you pass that tradition on to your children?”