An evergreen tree decorated with dreidels, Jewish stars, bags of gelt and a Chanukah menorah on top is:
1. A Chanukah bush.
2. A Christmas tree masquerading as a Chanukah bush.
3. Still a Christmas tree.
5. Not a big deal.
6. A learning opportunity
Reaction to just such a tree at the Cleveland Botanical Garden's WinterShow has included all of the above, raising a host of issues associated with the "December Dilemma."
How can a minor Jewish festival (Chanukah) "compete" with a major Christian religious holiday (Christmas)? Why should it even try? How do interfaith families reconcile the two, especially when small children ask big questions ("Why can't we have a tree?").
The suggestion that the WinterShow tree on display since Nov. 25 might trouble some Jews was brought to the Botanical Garden's attention following an outside organization's holiday reception there last week. Fortunately, those involved with the display reacted quickly, and are using the experience to make long-lasting changes that will foster culturally sensitive diversity in Greater Cleveland.
"I think this is the beginning of a real learning opportunity for us," said Natalie A. Ronayne, the garden's executive director. "It was done with good intent, but a basic lack of understanding of the issue."
It all started when the Botanical Garden's affiliate clubs, volunteers who provide decorations for the annual show, decided that this year each club would decorate a tree based on a children's book. The garden's librarian came up with a list of nature and seasonal books that, after being used in the displays, would be added to the library.
The dazzling trees display snowflakes, animals, seashells, mittens and more. The Ohio City Gardeners chose the book Eight Days of Hanukkah, written by Harriet Ziefert and illustrated by Melinda Levine (Viking Books, 1997). It's a delightful lesson, with a page and poem for each night ("Mommy makes the dreidels spin - nun, gimmel, hay, shin").
Kevin Borowiak, president of the Ohio City club, had the best of intentions to expand the multi-cultural flavor of the show, which includes a tree celebrating Native American heritage and one celebrating Kwanzaa. He got input from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews, including some who are club members, on the best ways to proceed.
Their consensus: lop several feet off the top of the tree, trim branches and create a "Chanukah bush" as a more appropriate symbol than a Chanukah-decorated Christmas tree.
"It was never our goal to offend anybody or upset anyone," Borowiak said. "We want to be sensitive. Ultimately the primary goal was to create a representation of a children's book about a special holiday. We were not trying to make any religious, faith or tradition statement."
Some Jews, however, see a "Chanukah bush" as a misguided attempt to inflate the importance of Chanukah, or worse, an assimilation-fueled blurring of religion in interfaith households. They shrei gevalt (cry out in protest) over households with Jews in them that have Christmas trees or "Chanukah bushes," citing Biblical and halachic admonitions against practicing other religions and fearing the destruction of the Jewish people.
Yet according to surveys by InterfaithFamily.com, about 80% of interfaith families say they are raising their children as Jews and about 50% of those have a Christmas tree - not as a religious symbol but as a reminder of one parent's background and warm family times, said the organization's CEO, Edmund C. Case.
"What intermarried people do at Christmas is not nearly as important as what they do the rest of the year," said Case.
A Christmas tree is one thing. A Christmas tree masquerading as a Chanukah bush is another, and a modern invention we could do without. Still, the Internet is full of Jewish ornaments to hang somewhere ("Menorahments," one seller calls them), including a Star of David "Hanukkah Tree Topper."
Borowiak, who grew up Presbyterian, is no stranger to interfaith issues. As a Sunday school teacher he regularly took students to synagogues when teaching them about Judaism. "Even as Gentile, I was made to feel welcome," he said. "They were open to us wanting to learn about their faith."
Clearly, continued education - for Christians and for Jews - that Chanukah is not a "Jewish Christmas" will help. Ronayne said the Botanical Garden wants to build new outreach to the Jewish community and find ways to incorporate more Jewish elements in its work. For example, one Jewish staff member recently returned from a vacation in Israel with ideas on how to partner with Israeli organizations.
"The onus is on us to do research better and start with people in our midst that are active in the Jewish community," she said. The Botanical Garden already has taken many steps to be inclusive. Last year, for example, it commissioned a menorah sculpture for its outdoor reflecting pool whose lights glow each night of Chanukah.
Future goals could include incorporating more year-round opportunities where Jewish themes mesh with the garden's environmental mission. Think of the possibilities: springtime exhibits that tie in with Passover, harvest themes around Succot, reforestation around Tu b'Shevat. The Jewish holiday calendar, so closely tied to agriculture, provides many natural (pun intended) opportunities to explore and educate Jews and non-Jews alike.
WinterShow closes Dec. 31. This week, Ronayne and Borowiak were discussing plans to dismantle the tree and were talking to Jewish community leaders about the best way create a new Chanukah display based on the children's book.
The festival includes a creative gingerbread competition, and there's already a lovely gingerbread Chanukah menorah on display, surrounded by a gingerbread dreidel and little gingerbread gifts including an adorable teddy bear with a blue yarmulke.
That wasn't offensive at all. Last I checked, gingerbread was not a Christian symbol.
Share your thoughts
What do you think about a Chanukah bush? How do you address the "December Dilemma?" Post your comments on this column below, submit a letter to the editor, or leave comments on Facebook (The Cleveland Jewish News) or Twitter (@CleveJewishNews).
December Dilemma resources
The following resources are from a list created by The Jewish Education Center of Cleveland (www.jecc.org). Visit this column's posting on www.cjn.org/opinion for the full list. Check for these books and ask for other suggestions at your synagogue and public libraries.
• Candlelight for Rebecca. American Girl Collection, Jacqueline Greene Dembar. Illus. Robert Hunt. Rebecca Rubin, the Jewish American Girl who lives on the Lower East Side of New York in 1914, is troubled when her teacher assigns her class to make Christmas decorations.
• Twenty Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do (and Not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren, Kerry M. Olitzky and Paul Golin. Suggestions to enhance Jewish holiday celebrations while still being supportive of non-Jewish parents.
• The Trees of the Dancing Goats, Patricia Polacco. A Jewish family helps their sick Christian neighbors celebrate Christmas by decorating a tree with Chanukah symbols.
• There's No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein, Susan Sussman, Illustrated by Charles Robinson. Robin, a Jewish girl, is frustrated she is not allowed to have a Christmas tree while her Jewish friend Sandy Goldstein has one. A short DVD movie of the title is available as well.
• www.InterfaithFamily.com. December Holidays section features tips for interfaith families and links to resources.
• www.joi.org. The website of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which supports interfaith couples.
See more resources here.