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‘We Were All Assimilating’: Why I Dropped My Family’s Christmas Tree

The lush, fragrant pines penned up in Christmas tree lots waiting to be hauled home and decorated beckon Jewish kids like a siren song.

Oh, how my three daughters longed for one. Alas, their wish for a festive tree remained unfulfilled: Neither Santa Claus nor their Reform Jewish parents delivered one while they lived under our roof.

However, when I was growing up, and for two generations prior — Christmas trees represented a realized American dream in our family.

My great-grandparents Sol and Marian Wurtzel, and their extended families, came from Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Hollywood in 1917 as observant Orthodox Jews. Like other Jews in the motion picture business, they did what worked best for their careers and their fledgling industry. They embraced Americana by (among other sacrileges) displaying Christmas trees in their homes. After all, weren’t they adapting stories into moving pictures to entertain the American public? Wasn’t most of this public Gentile? What could be more representative of the American dream than a lavishly decorated Christmas tree with piles of gifts beneath it?

After a few years in Hollywood, my great-grandparents’ house had a Christmas tree in the living room. When my great-grandfather Sol became a macher mogul at 20th Century Fox in the 1930s, the Wurtzels moved to Bel-Air. The Christmas tree and the pile of presents beneath it grew larger, commensurate with their elevated status.

My great-uncle Paul remembered running down the marble hallway of the Bel-Air mansion to find his presents. “My dad wore a Santa suit with a Jewish star on his head,” he said. This image of my ancestors celebrating Christmas exemplifies Hollywood Jews of that era: They co-opted American culture but didn’t hide their Judaism.

“We didn’t want to be too Jewish in those days, dear,” my grandmother Lillian explained to me, “The motion picture business drew people from all over the world and we had to get along and understand each other.”

Lillian raised my mother and her sister in a traditional Colonial-style home on Walden Drive in Beverly Hills during the late 1940s and early 1950s. They proudly displayed a Christmas tree in their living room window. My grandfather had a complete Lionel toy-train set he set up to chug around beneath the tree. “All of my Jewish friends had trees,” my mom told me. “The neighbors, who owned Lerner’s Department Store, even had a crèche on their front lawn.”

The mighty Rabbi Edgar Magnin of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles’s oldest, largest Reform synagogue, lived up the street and blithely countenanced his neighbors’ Christmas decorations. Magnin preached a secularized form of Judaism to his congregation. In my mother’s words: “We were all assimilating.”

By the 1970s, when I grew up on the Palos Verdes Peninsula – a largely non-Jewish suburb in southern Los Angeles County – the Christmas tree was on its way out. Our tree was a one-foot, scraggly potted pine, placed in a back room “for the housekeeper.”

My father grew up in a more traditional middle-class Jewish family in Los Angeles, sans tree. He didn’t believe a nice Jewish family should have a Christmas tree. He didn’t buy into the Hollywood/Beverly Hills brand of tree assimilation. Mom missed the pageantry, the fun of decorating one. My brother, sister and I also felt deprived of holiday cheer.

During my elementary school years, I remember going over to my best friend Juliet’s home and drooling over her huge tree decorated with glittering ornaments and a porcelain angel on top. How I longed for a tree just like that. We all ganged up on Dad and begged and pleaded.

“No Christmas tree in this house,” he bellowed.

Mom weakly defied him by bringing home a pathetic potted pine, which “we could plant in the yard” after the holidays ended, and a bag of tinsel. We satisfied ourselves by stringing the tinsel and hanging a couple of shiny metallic ornaments on its meager limbs. We then reluctantly carried it down the hall for the housekeeper.

Fast forward a few decades: Today, we don’t have any type of tree in our San Diego home – not even a “Hanukkah bush.” Although our daughters inherited my early tree envy, I realized long ago that my father was right.

Something about having a Christmas tree in the house feels confusing and sacrilegious. We’re not Christian and don’t celebrate Christmas — so why the tree?

For most observant Jewish families this seems like an obvious conclusion, but my family’s checkered past rendered this into a complicated journey.

In our fourth generation, my branch of our Southern California Jewish family has finally uprooted the tree.

We’ve replaced it with a collection of Hanukkah menorahs displayed with pride –and this year, I’ve hung two stained glass Stars of David and a pendant embroidered with Happy Hanukkah on our front door.

With rising anxiety about public displays of Jewishness — it’s time to chuck the proverbial trees, and our assimilationist tendencies as American Jews. It’s time to celebrate our identity, and our holidays, with a pride as fierce as the Maccabees.

Sharon Rosen Leib is a contributing writer to the Times of Israel and the San Diego Jewish Journal.

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