Wednesday, December 16, 2009

'Twas the 8th Night of Haunukkah

This week I received my annual plea from parents on what to say to a Jewish child who wants a Christmas Tree at home.

I'll begin with a poem....

'Twas the 8th night of Chanukah and all through the shul
Not a word was included of a holiday called Yule
It's not that we're trying to defy old Saint Nick
It's just that it's now time to go and Bensch Lick!

OK, a little poetic license was taken. Bensch Licht, BTW, is Yiddish for lighting Shabbat candles. My point is that we have so much love and warmth and light in our own Jewish rituals that having a Christmas Tree should not be an issue. At least it should not be for the child whose ENTIRE YEAR is filled with those worthy Jewish substitutes. We just need to spread the wealth around. We can't fight this battle in December alone.

Shabbat is a weekly chance to "gather around the tree," albeit a tree of wax, for a moment of reflection and a warm hug. And the day is bookended by candles, with the multi-colored multi-wicked havdalah candle accompanied by sweet smelling spices at the end. Then throw in the Sukkah and the family festivals of Passover and, most fun of all, Purim, and you've got more than enough to compensate for the tree.

We also have Hanukkah, but if we are lining the two holidays up against each other, Hanukkah will never win. So if it's a one-on-one, fahgeddabout it. See this video from the Daily Show if you need more proof. And this week's issue of the New Yorker has some amusing "tips to help the sensitive Christian make everyone, no matter what they’re wearing on their head, feel at ease."

I particularly like #9: Change the words to popular Christmas songs, as in “Frosty the Orthodox Rebbe,” “Deck the Halls with Photos of Your Many Beautiful Grandchildren,” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Our Accountant.”

In the end, the Christmas Tree is a religious object, "pure and symbol." (click here to see a terrific comprehensive listing of the Christian symbols involved). Anyone who calls the tree a secular matter is simply, well, barking up the wrong evergreen. Want a secular symbol in your school? Fine. Tell the principal to leave the tree up an extra month and use it to celebrate Tu B'Shevat!

So what is the best response? I've always felt that kids need a firm grounding in one faith and, if that faith is to be Judaism, it is best to keep the tree out of the house. However I see no problem in helping Christians celebrate their holiday in other houses, hospitals or homeless shelters, as my family has done at Pacific House for years.

And then, as much as possible and all year, long, we need to light those Jewish flames. This is especially true in this era of mixed identities and the blurring of lines. For kids, the response is to affirm the values, warmth and joy of our tradition.

Now if it's the adult who wants the tree, that's an entirely different question.

As I wrote a few years back in an article entitled, "The Litmus Tree,"

I suspect that our Evergreen Envy began to rise concomitantly with the dimming of the Shabbat candles in our homes. As Jews became less secure in the glow of their own rituals, they became more fearful of succumbing to the ways of our neighbors, subconsciously recalling the warning of Psalm 106:35: "They mingled with the nations and adopted their customs. They worshipped their idols, which became a snare to them." What’s nice is that, at least in some quarters, this is leading to an upsurge in observance of Jewish celebrations. People are recognizing that a Sukkah is really a Christmas tree that you can eat in, and that the warmth of Shabbat comes not once, but 52 times a year.

Happy Hanukkah to all
...and to all... Laila Tov!

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