The Chanukah bush of the Saeidy family which started "just for fun." Courtesy Elliot Saeidy
Daniel, a junior in Los Angeles, used to decorate a Chanukah bush in his home when he was a young child. He, his parents and brother adorned the shrub with Chanukah-themed ornaments, such as mini menorahs in lieu of candy canes and shiny orbs; blue and white lights as opposed to white, red or green ones; and a Star of David on top, instead of an angel.
His mother, who is a convert from Catholicism, missed Christmas celebrations so the family figured a Chanukah bush was the perfect solution.
“I grew up with a Christmas tree as you might imagine and I just wanted the kids to have a bit of holiday cheer with a little bit of evergreen in the house,” said Mary, the family asked that their last name not be used.
At the time, Daniel didn’t think much of the tradition. “Aesthetically a Chanukah bush looks really nice and the idea of having a tree in your house is really cool,” he said.
But Daniel’s father ended the tradition citing a conflict integrating symbols of a holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus with a Jewish one. Mary said she didn’t mind kicking the bush to the curb, and today does not wish for a tree, or bush, in the house, she said it was “not worth the discombobulation.”
Every December, Christians gather around Christmas trees, Jews gather around menorahs, and some Jews gather around Chanukah bushes.
The start of the trend is not clearly documented, although there are mentions of what can be defined as “a Jewish Christmas tree” as early as the 19th century. In an 1879 issue of the Jewish Messenger, a newspaper, Henrietta Szold (founder of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America) questioned, “Why need we adopt the Christmas tree, ridiculously baptized a Chanukah bush?”
One hundred and thirty-seven years later, the answer to her question remains unresolved and complicated. Szold wrote from a place of concern about increasing assimilation; today, Daniel is unconcerned.
“I think that people need to calm down the with the cultural assimilation stuff,” he said.
For him, the Chanukah bush is not a symbol of the absorption of Judaism into mainstream Christian America, but rather a banner of cultural blending that should transcend beyond the last week of December.
“We need to stop looking at ourselves as such a separate race of people, but instead just a different category of American,” he said.
This year, the second night of Chanukah coincided with Christmas, and the issue of Jewish and Christian coexistence, on a cultural level, felt pressing.
Like Daniel, Elliot Saeidy, doesn’t think too much about having a Chanukah bush in the house. His older sister began the tradition two years ago for fun, and guests always enjoyed it when they came into Elliot’s house during Chanukah.
“Sometimes I thought about it being too close to Christmas, and sometimes thought about how it would be offensive to others,” he said. “But it was also just for fun and I didn't think about it that much because it was just a tree.” Elliot does not see the practice as a big deal.
“I never thought about it being about assimilation, and now I do see why it would seem that way. It is very untraditional of a Jew to have a Chanukah bush because it is very similar to a tree.”
He continued, “I wouldn't bring my kids up with the Chanukah bush, but if they reach a certain age where they are aware of their religion, and knew they were Jews and knew that they had to keep Jewish traditions, then I might let them have a tree just for fun. But I would not let them have a tree for the sake of assimilation, allowing them to lose sight of who they truly are.”
Perhaps we are in an era of making the best of our assimilation, because we have found and accepted a comfortable threshold. Today’s American Jews have thoughtfully assimilated in a responsible and conscious way. By standing at the doorway between Jewish traditions and the dominant tradition of the country we inhabit — but not stepping through the portal — we have arrived at an understanding. Like Daniel, his family, and so many others, we stand in a happy middle.
The concern of Henrietta Szold — that Jewish customs would be subsumed — has come true, sort of. People worry less about assimilation because they are aware of it. Similar to other times in history when Jews have adapted the culture that surrounds them, it is done in a thoughtful manner. For example, the black hats worn by Orthodox men originate from the garb of nobles of that era.
And yet now the black hat is more of a symbol of Judaism than of European nobility. Participating in the dominant culture is not the same as being devoured by it. We must heed precaution, and maybe a little less paranoia.
“I don’t think if I was living on Mars I would come up with the idea to have a tree in my house,” said Daniel. “Yes it’s a Christian thing, but I don’t want it for Christian reasons.”