A woman picks through evergreens while her husbands ponders the perils of assimilation
The guy at the Christmas tree lot wants to know how high our ceilings are.
I tell him.
Then he wants to know how we plan to orient the tree — will it stand against a wall, in a corner…?
I leave that one for my wife, Lisa.
Because, really, the only thing I want him to know is that I’m not Christian. I have nothing against Christians or Christianity. One of my sisters, whom I love dearly, is a Christian (long story). I just don’t want to be taken for one.
Maybe I should have worn a Star of David around my neck. Maybe I can say something in Yiddish. Is there a signal? A handshake? No. We’re not Masons. Anyway, he wouldn’t pick up on any of it. Not around these parts.
After we bring the tree home, I’m tasked with setting lights around the eaves of our house. After I’m done it resembles, slightly, all of the other houses on our block, if a bit more crudely done because this our first holiday season in a house of our own. Before this we owned a condo in Brooklyn and before that we rented. As a result I have very little practice setting Christmas lights.
Intermarriage does have its challenges, you’re probably thinking at this point.
Only I’m not. Intermarried, that is.
Lisa, is also Jewish. We’ve been married forty years now. She loves Christmas. As do I. I’ve always loved this time of year, growing up in Southern California where we anticipated the gaily decorated houses, some with elaborate nativity scenes, or Santa and his reindeer in glittering red and blue and yellow lights. The weather was unchallenging and, most importantly, I didn’t have to do anything. I could just take it all in, and the most effort required of me might be buying a few gifts for my friends.
Lisa’s parents are also Jewish, but her father was not always so. His family was so traditionally Lutheran that his parents wore black armbands attending their only son’s wedding to a Jewess. In later years he converted to Judaism, but when my wife was still a little girl they celebrated Hannukah and Christmas. Mostly Christmas. She recalls the trees her dad cut by hand, like Pa Engalls, trimmed beautifully with lights and angel ornaments and candy canes and even a star at the top dominating their living room. The aroma of fresh-cut pine permeated the entire house.
It was the only time in my life I was happy! she said tearfully many years ago when I snidely reminded her that Jewish folk don’t exactly celebrate Christmas.
It’s possible that was a slight exaggeration, but her family history took dysfunction to new levels. I was exposed to enough of it myself to know. So what could I do, but set the stand, balance the stump and start hunting that one blown bulb that prevented the whole strand from lighting up?
I’m not observant. I don’t put on Tefilin unless I run into Chabaniks, and I work on the Sabbath. But, as I like to say (to Lisa’s eternal bafflement) the shul I boycott is Orthodox.
In short, I’m pretty secure in my identity as a Jew.
Assimilation and intermarriage are contemporary Judaism’s greatest challenges. During a vacation in Venice we toured the Ghetto Vecchio’s magnificent Sephardic synagogue. Our guide explained that the ghetto had been walled off for centuries until Napoleon conquered Venice and tore the ghetto walls down.
So, was Napoleon good for the Jews? A woman asked.
To ghetto or not to ghetto has always been problematic in Jewish history. Compulsory separation is discriminatory, as the US Supreme Court eventually ruled in Brown vs. The Board of Education. But it also enables a minority culture to maintain its traditions and identity with less influence from the wider world. As a result, the Enlightenment and the fall of the ghettos has been a mixed blessing for diaspora Jews.
Some contemporary separation, of course, is voluntary. Hasidic Jews, Amish, Indigenous peoples live in distinct communities where the influence of secular culture isn’t omnipresent. For those of us who lead secular lives, however, identity is more a matter of sheer will. We lack the constant reinforcement of neighbors and family who share our cultural background.
Historian Norman Canter’s history of the Jewish people, The Sacred Chain, concludes that American Jewry is fast disappearing due largely to intermarriage and children being raised outside Judaism. Orthodox Jews, who tend to have larger families and maintain their culture, are not replacing those lost to secularism. When Canter’s book was published, Orthodox consisted of roughly 15% of all US Jews. A quarter-century later, they’re 10% of the total.
“Demography is destiny,” wrote Geoffrey Barraclough fifty year ago.
In light of this, how dare I contribute, even slightly, to the juggernaut of assimilation which, if trends continue, will leave American Jews little more than a footnote in the history of our republic?
It’s simple really.
It makes her happy.
In the course of our years together she has saved my life more times than I can count.
And I don’t mean some metaphorical Oh-my-life-would-be-so-empty-without-her bullshit, either.
I mean really, literally saved my life.
She has put up with decades of my stupidity, my selfishness, my childishness — endured nearly half-a-century of grief from me. If I tried to recount half of it you’d call me a liar. No woman would put up with that! For mysterious reasons all her own she has loved me. Cared for me. Been true to me. She has guided me through perilous and painful byways into becoming a semblance of a halfway decent human being.
And I’m going to deny her a fucking Christmas tree?
After I get the light strings working, I take off for the home store while she attends the rest of the decorations. Midway there, my phone rings. It’s her. Very unusual.
“Guess what?” Her voice quivers with schoolgirlish excitement.
“I found a bird’s nest in the tree!”
That made her day.
Made her week.
Made it all worthwhile.