Wednesday, December 13, 2006

To Tree or Not To Tree

Every December I offer to get a tree for my Gentile husband, but Tommy declines, declaring religion a dangerous pursuit. So why on Friday nights is he the one reminding me to light the shabbos candles, and is now searching through cabinets to locate our wax-crusted candelabra? Are we the only pair with the Christmas or Hanukkah mishegas? To find out, I queried friends and relatives (photo captions are at the end) about their religious journeys and learned they often encountered forks in the road, confusing signposts, and other directional signals before finding their way home.

To be honest, my own wrestling match with Judaism has been a messy sight. In my childhood, we were High Holiday and Bar Mitzvah Jews, attending the Austrian-Galician shul every September in our 1940s-finest, and in 1948 for my brother Ronnie’s bar mitzvah. And although I had always considered myself Jewish, I felt an outsider -- ignorant of the laws, prayers, rituals.

That changed in 1988 when on Rosh Hashanah, I spotting dressed-up Jews, prayers books in hand, on their way to synagogue. Now, I wanted in and searched for a place that would welcome and educate me. And on May 6, 1989, after a year of membership and study at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston, I celebrated by becoming a Bat Mitzvah at the age of 51.

But it didn’t stick. After my Jewish husband and I separated in 1990 and eventually divorced, my ties to both synagogue and religion frayed. We had joined JRC as a couple; he was part of my ceremony, too many sad memories. And after marrying Tommy in 1998, I figured I had an even better excuse to neglect observance. But now, every Friday night, with my goy’s prompting (he claims he finds this ritual heartwarming rather than perilous) I light the candles, say the blessings, and Tommy and I wish each other and our dog, “Shabbat Shalom.”

My two daughters, Faith and Jill Soloway, have their own tales of ambivalence. Although they briefly attended Akiba Schechter Jewish Day School in Hyde Park, neither asked to study for a Bat Mitzvah, and their father and I didn’t push it. Now each daughter has a different story to tell.

Obviously Faith, who wrote, produced, and starred in the infamous folk rock opera, “Jesus Has Two Mommies,” has her own curiosity about the other side.

And although both Faith and her partner are Jewish, Faith says, “This year, in honor of our girl's mixed heritage (Scottish, Japanese, and Jewish), and in honor of her mothers loving the tree part of Christmas, we treed it up. Right now it's all candy canes and lights, we haven't committed to the ornaments yet.”

As for Jill, since living in Los Angeles and giving birth to her son 10 years ago, she has become immersed in Judaism, trumping even my years-ago bat mitzvah. Here’s her story:

“There’s been years with trees, years without... but if we ever did a tree, I wasn't really celebrating the glory of Christ's birth-- just sort of imitating what seemed really fun about the whole season-- lights, stockings, a strange fat man visiting in the night.

“But after enrolling my son into a Jewish day school, some of the Jewy-ness started to seep into my soul. Before you can say Shabbat Shalom, I was making Purim costumes and crafting my very own a Sukkah. Soon after, I was invited to be part of Reboot, a group that encourages youngish Jews to grapple with questions of identity, community and meaning. So if I was at all hovering at the edge of my faith, Reboot tossed me in full force. Now I’m sometimes flaying, more often surfacing, and even once in a while blissfully floating in waters that feel more familiar each day.

“So, this year, no trees in our casa. In fact, as I write this, we're decking the whole place out in blue and white and turquoise and silver, and planning a Hannukah party to play a new version of Dreidel we invented-- Ultimate Dreidl.

“And now, for the sales pitch part of me getting in on my mama's blog (how many of you can say that, ‘my mama’s blog’): SUPER JEW T-SHIRTS! I imagineered these shirts for a play at my son's school. Now you, too, can go to this website and buy a stack for yourself and deserving shirtless friends and relatives. Plus, you're doing a mitzvah with every purchase, just like a superjew should-- because a percentage of sales goes to the Progressive Jewish Alliance, an organization that educates, advocates and organizes on issues of peace, equality, diversity and justice. And if that doesn’t get you to part with your gelt, you should know that a percentage of sales also goes to Temple Israel’s school. That's right-- WEAR YOUR PRIDE, the Super Jew way!”

My offspring and I have had our say, so here are two other stories that fit our pluralism theme.

Laura Varon Brown, editor of the Detroit Free Press’ Twist magazine, explains her journey through several religious faiths:

“I was baptized Roman Catholic and raised Episcopalian. My mom taught Sunday school, so I was always with her – whether I was in the class or not. I think I had religious school overload.

“In comes my late husband, Jim, who was Jewish. During my classes to understand Judaism, I really began to enjoy the teachings and certainly the connection to the Rabbi. I surprised my then fiancĂ© and secretly took conversion classes and converted the day before our wedding.

“Jim and I had a daughter before he died. She is being raised Jewish. I remarried to Jeff, who was raised a Christian Baptist. We married in my temple and Jeff immediately grew close to our Rabbis. While Jeff hasn’t converted, as a family, we follow more of the Jewish traditions. Our daughter Emma, is being raised a Jew.

“But regarding Christmas, remember, I was raised Catholic. My mother loved the Christmas traditions: the tree, the food, family gathering, gift giving and the general warmth of the season. My late-husband and I always had a tree in our Jewish home and it was to honor my mom. We have one now to honor my mom, my past as well as my husband Jeff’s traditions. My girls would have played Christmas music at their Bat Mitzvahs if they could have. They love the music. They love the tree – my mom’s penguin ornaments always go up first.

“So, yes, it’s eclectic. But it’s about honoring, respecting and finding the parts of every season and each other that touch us.”

Finally, Tommy’s golf/bowling buddy, Hal “Tiger” Temkin (Jewish), offers this tale of the tree he and his wife Alice Herman display in their suburban home:

“Alice grew up in a Catholic home and went to Catholic grammar school. She has always loved Christmas, and all the symbolism of the holiday, and has always gone the limit in decorating our home for the holidays.

“In addition to the tree with her collection of ornaments and lights, and a few Stars of David’s sprinkled in, there is cotton ‘snow’ at the base with a village complete with homes and people; a lighted Santa face on the wall; assorted Santa's, reindeer, elves and stuffed animals around the room; a miniature sled propped against the side of the couch; and stockings hung up for everyone in our family.

“Our homage to Hanukkah is limited to lighting the menorah candles whenever anyone is visiting -- the whole menorah, no matter the night -- in a beautiful blaze of our love and friendship for all our family and friends.”

And now, in closing, from the Soloway-Madison family to all of you: Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy New Year!

Photo Captions
1. Christmas trees for sale at Target.
2. Paltry in comparison, Target’s Hanukkah display.
3. Me, reading from the Torah at my Bat Mitzvah, May 6, 1989.
4. Wedding day, Jan. 13, 1998 at the Treasure Island Hotel, with an ecumenical minister presiding.
5. Catie Curtis, Sean Staples, and Jennifer Kimball in publicity shot for Faith’s “Jesus Christ Has Two Mommies.”
6. My granddaughter, and the Christmas tree supplied by her two mommies.
7. The Christmas tree, consisting of 130 balsam firs, that stands in Chicago’s Daley Plaza.
8. The Hanukkah Menorah on Daley Plaza, courtesy of Lubavitch Chabad, Center for Jewish Life.
9. Jill and my grandson in their Superjew t-shirts.
10. Emma Brown, Molly Varon (with her favorite Disney menorah), Laura Varon Brown, and Jeff Brown.
11. A Hanukkah greeting card.
12. A Christmas display at our favorite Sunday breakfast place, Dappers East.
13. Alice and Tiger pictured in non-December weather.
14. The Temkin-Herman Christmas tree.
15. A Kwanzaa display.


Cathrina said...

fantastic blog..and the pics are amazing..

Pam said...

I agree...fantastic blog. I converted to Judaism a few years ago and was fascinated by your stories. Thanks!


Elaine Soloway said...

Thanks Cathrina and Pam!

Susan said...

Wonderful story. I am also from a cross-religionist family. We don't ask, we don't tell, but we DO all love Dr. Seuss' Grinch. Merry, Happy, Joyous, etc. Susan K.

Neil said...

It is interesting how, out of all of the Christmas festivities, the "tree" has become the dividing line with mixed-couples. I'm Jewish and I love all the trappings of Christmas -- the carols, Santa, the gift-giving, etc. But the tree is such a "public" showing of Christmas that it would make me feel uncomfortable, like putting a crucifix up in the living room. Christians, being the majority religion, don't usually feel as insecure about the religious "icons" of Judaism being displayed in their home. It was interesting to read about how mixed-couples deal with this issue.