Some Jewish communal policy wonks want us to believe that a Christmas tree in an interfaith home can nullify all other efforts at creating Jewish identity in our children. While we at JOI would never suggest that a Christmas tree is anything but a Christian symbol, we also don’t buy that it automatically identifies a Christian home. Take, for example, this recent article from the New York Times about a Jewish woman married to a Jewish man yet creating a totally audacious Christmas display in front of their home. The woman bafflingly doesn’t even connect Santa Claus (a.k.a. Saint Nicholas) to Christianity.
And therein lays the paradox in today’s Jewish community. If either she or her husband were not Jewish, certain voices within the organized Jewish community would condemn them as having a Christian home and question their ability to raise Jewish children, just based on their decorations. But do we really know enough about them to know how they are raising their kids? Likewise, because both spouses are Jewish—and in-marriages are automatically celebrated by the Jewish community, no questions asked—their wedding would be considered a “success” by those same policy wonks, even though their decorations appear to identify them as pretty clueless about which holiday Jews actually celebrate in December. That is the danger in using only one criteria (marriage) for measuring “Jewish continuity.”
In fact, long before the rise of Jewish intermarriage in America, American Jews were putting up Christmas trees because it seemed the “American” thing to do. Earlier this year we blogged about how the head of New York City’s largest Jewish organization came from one of those households. There was also a first-person piece in yesterday’s New York Times from Cindy Chupack, a producer of Sex and the City who is married to a fellow Jew and put up a Christmas tree this year. While overall her article may read like a disturbing surrender to assimilation, she tries to assure her Jewish readers that, “if we’re fortunate enough to have children, we will raise them with the same arbitrary rules we were raised with, trying our best to sell that old chestnut (roasting on an open fire) that ‘eight nights is better than one,’ and putting this tradition behind us until the kids go off to college, if not forever.”
We as a community need to understand that there is a wide range of factors that create family identity. Through the years, we have heard countless stories of why interfaith families raising Jewish children continue to own Christmas trees, and not once has the reason been “to celebrate the birth of Christ.” In one recent article, a non-Jewish woman married to a Jewish man explains how her Christmas celebration is about keeping a promise she made to herself as a youth, when her broken family held Christmases that “were almost Dickensian in their misery.” It doesn’t mean she isn’t helping to raise a strongly-identified Jewish child today.