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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


December 1, 2017  RSS feed

Text: T T T

Natalie Portman’s tree isn’t scary, and other musings

Emilie Socash

Years ago, I heard the words “December Dilemma” for the first time, a phrase which describes the seemingly dramatic pull that Jewish kids exert on their parents to make Hanukkah more Christmas-like. At first it made sense: it’s surely a dilemma if only two binary choices are available, those being a) a rigid Jewish traditions-based holiday observance in which we light candles and fry foods (and give no gifts) or b) a celebration that embraces consumerism and offers our whiny wee ones a paltry Hanukkah bush.

Last year, Natalie Portman announced to Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show that she planned to have a Christmas tree for the first time. Here’s Jewish America’s sweetheart/star/Harvard graduate waging her own war on Hanukkah, and yet I find her reasoning to be, well, rather pedestrian (and tolerable). For Portman, it was a simple equation of meeting the needs of her entire family, including her Christmas-celebrating in-laws, who wished to be together on Dec. 24 and 25 as both holidays coincided (or collided, as you wish to see it) on the calendar.

Plenty of press responded to Portman’s position, both in support and against.

What I grapple with is a question of a more basic nature: how can we be an inclusive community and concurrently welcome those whose behaviors embrace the “other?” In this column it’s about a Christmas tree, but what about Halloween, or Valentine’s Day? What about self-proclaimed Jew-Bus (Buddhist Jews) or the practice of yoga?

When I received the most recent Hadassah Magazine—which happens to be the book issue, a personal favorite—I was delighted to see a four-page profile on the amazing PJ Library book program. I remembered back to a visit I made to Aspen, CO, as part of a PJ Library executive retreat put on by the Grinspoon Foundation, during which I had the chance to sit with the Foundation’s president, Winnie Sandler Grinspoon. As we sat around a picnic table at the top of Aspen Mountain, the small group talked through directions that the initiative may go, and needs that weren’t being met.

“Would you ever include a book that features a family that has a Christmas tree in their home?” I asked sincerely, knowing that many families who receive the book are intermarried and likely contemplate (or have) a tree. In my memory, those around the table held their breath somewhat anxiously, whether that be from the awkwardness of my question or the eagerness for guidance from Ms. Sandler Grinspoon.

She only needed a moment to answer, and stated that no, that would not be the type of family that would be featured in one of the selected Hanukkah titles for the program. A fiery conversation ensued among those present about how doing so would “normalize” the activity of having a tree and would somehow make it “okay.”

I remember feeling disheartened at the time, not in that I felt passionate that a title with a Christmas tree be offered, but rather that there still exists a sense of “other” or “less-than” despite knowing that about half of our households with kids have one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent. In our community, an average of 44 percent of our households choose to have a Christmas tree (with a peak in Pasco County—68 percent of households have a tree). Of those under age 50, 54 percent put up a tree, and 76 percent of households with children do so. An additional high-water mark is that 60 percent of non-elderly couples (those who are under age 65 and have no kids at home) have a tree.

What do we do to make sense of this, to welcome families of all types of observance, and to pursue a path that seeks to draw more people in rather than cut more people out?

To offer counterpoint, there is the very real position that the December Dilemma creates a watering down of tradition in an effort to make sure our kids don’t feel left out at a time when we can’t escape festive holiday music, tinsel everywhere, and beautiful light displays. (I admit, cover anything in a string of lights and I’m in awe.) Hanukkah is not Christmas, and to blend the two assuredly has the additional emotional baggage in the roots of a Christian holiday commemorating the birth of its primary point of worship.

I remember how I spent Christmas morning from age (approximately) 4 through 18: my family piled into the car, bundled in our snow pants and mittens and googles, and headed to Mt. Spokane. We met up with other families who didn’t celebrate Christmas and for the first half of the day had the slopes all to ourselves. My father was known as the “expert” skier and taught anyone new to the sport; my mother was always the epitome of the ski bunny.

In the 1970s and 1980s, I don’t know if the December Dilemma really existed; I didn’t recognize it as such. But looking back I realize that my parents had a pang of parental distress and wished to cushion the blow of being different. They invented a holiday that celebrated their wedding anniversary in which presents were exchanged and gifted, piled high weeks in advance along the fireplace hearth… except it was in the middle of the summer.

Now as a parent myself, I feel the sting of raising kids as both of this world and different, and like every other parent, navigate as best as I can. I realize now that the December Dilemma is as much about parenting confidence as it is the kids’ desires, and I strive to hold both ideas in my mind: when is a tree just a tree, and when is a cultural tradition trodden upon?

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