Star/Crossed: Jewish Stories from an Interfaith Life Etz Chayim, the Tree of Life


“Star/Crossed: Jewish Stories from an Interfaith Life” is Andi Rosenthal’s monthly column about “the continuing journey of a Jew-by-choice, navigating the joys and challenges of choosing a Jewish life, sharing my choices with my Christian family of origin, and living the legacy of a rediscovered Jewish heritage.”

Considering the reverence with which the Jewish community regards trees, I am still puzzled as to why one particular type of tree–you know, that one–causes us such anxiety.

When I first considered converting to Judaism, I of course knew that “giving up the Christmas tree” was one of the major obligations involved in becoming a Jew. What I didn’t know, however, was how frequently I would find that trees are mentioned–indeed, how integral the tree metaphor is to Jewish life itself–within the context of Jewish liturgy and celebration.

For example: the holiest object in Jewish life, the Torah, is referred to as Etz Chayim –the Tree of Life. Then there’s the holiday of Tu B’Shevat–commonly called the New Year of the Trees. The branch from an olive tree is a symbol of peace going all the way back to Genesis. Rules governing a tree’s growth and uses for its fruit are mentioned numerous times in the Talmud–not to mention that cedar trees are considered to be so magnificent the biblical sages themselves are compared to them. (Tractate Gittin 57a)

Given how often trees are both revered and used as symbols in Jewish life, it still seems strange to me that the one tree that meant something to me in my former faith should be so coldly and fearfully regarded in my new one.

I grew up in an interfaith home where getting the Christmas tree was an annual event. Each year, depending on whether the ending digit was an “odd” or an “even” (matching our birth years), my sister or I had the privilege of choosing the tree that would, magically, come to inhabit our house for a week to ten days. Decorating the tree–as most people who do so every year will tell you–was a family event, filled with cherished traditions and familiar rituals–from dragging the ancient boxes of ornaments up from the basement to cheering when my dad uttered the first in a long string of frustrated swear words while untangling the lights.

In spite of the protestations and admonishments of a number of Jewish friends who knew that I was serious about converting, having a tree was a tradition I maintained in my own home right up until the year when I was actually working with a rabbi. And, in my hopes of ending my old traditions with a grand finale of sorts, that final tree was the biggest one I had ever brought home–with my family or otherwise. In spite of the fact that I had actualized my commitment to living a Jewish life, the tree was something I felt the need to hold on to, even though it was the one remaining piece of a faith that I no longer practiced and a life that I no longer lived.

In Christmases past, once I moved into my own apartment, in an effort to be somewhat true to my interfaith heritage I tended to decorate my “holiday” trees with non-Christmas ornaments–neutral white lights, nothing overly red or green, and of course, the “Shalom” and Star of David sun catchers I moved from the window onto the branches where they would best be seen. My tree topper–in a nod to pop culture over religious doctrine, was a blue, feather-trimmed glitter tiara festooned with a photo of Elvis.

But for that final tree, as a concession to my conversion decision, I made a conscious choice to not decorate it. I simply lived with its beauty and symmetry, inhaling its delicious smells of pine and resin and memory–until New Year’s Day, our family’s traditional day of setting the house back in order. I wanted to see whether the tree meant the same thing to me without all of its trimmings–and no one was more surprised than I was when it did.

Once I converted–now more than three years ago, I figured that the tree was a part of my past. It had to be. Those were the rules. But in spite of all of my good intentions, I found myself asking the question of the man who was my boyfriend at the time.

“What do you think,” I said, tentatively, from my side of the car one crisp December afternoon, “about having a Christmas tree?”

His face registered a certain shock. For the year that we had been together, I had repeatedly dragged him to Friday night services, insisted on Shabbat (Sabbath) candles at home, and goaded him into hanging a mezuzah outside his apartment door. “Are you kidding?” he asked, mystified.

“No,” I told him. “I’m just asking you what you think about it. I don’t even mean this year. I mean, someday, maybe.”

“No way,” he said, a hint of anger in his voice. “Not in my house. Not in any home that we would think about sharing together.”

“But why?” I said. “It’s just a tree.”

“It’s more than that,” he argued. “It’s what the tree means. You know, the cross, and everything. It’s just not something we do.”

I knew by using the word “we,” he was including me in his definition of what it means to be Jewish. But I was silent. I hadn’t expected that answer, but then again, I realized, he certainly hadn’t expected the question.

My conversion to Judaism, in some way, became more real to me that afternoon. It wasn’t just about the joy and pride that I feel, having embraced our family’s Jewish heritage. It was also about sacrifice, too–that in time, I would have to learn how to stand on the side of the argument against having a Christmas tree. And that not having a tree is not just for now–no matter whom I end up sharing my life with, no matter how much I might want to give my future children the same experiences that I had as a child, and no matter how irreligious a manner in which I might decorate it–as a Jew, not having a tree in my home is, and has to be, forever.

That conversation was one of the ways I learned that I hadn’t yet gotten over the sense of loss that I feel every December. For me, it has nothing to do with being Christian or not. But in some sense, the Christmas tree, with all of its memories and its powerful connection to home, family, and joy, is my etz chayim–the tree of my life.

That life, however, is part of the past now. And yet, whenever December’s page appears again on the calendar, I can’t help but wonder about the future. As I wrote in this space last year, my Christmas ornaments remain in a box on the top shelf in my hall closet. I sometimes dream about a time, still generations away, when my great grandchildren, (whom I always imagine being as Jewish as they can be), will perhaps someday unearth this box of garlands and stars and angels from a dark attic or a basement closet. I think about them suddenly stumbling upon the great secret of their past–an ancestor who wasn’t born Jewish, who actually celebrated the holiday that they–like so many Jews–have been brought up to merely tolerate. And I wonder what they’ll say.