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A Jewish Christmas miracle


ALLENHURST, N.J. -- I loved raising my voice with the other kids in school, singing the traditional carols. Moreover, I was totally uninhibited about singing the lines "Oh come let us adore him, Chri-ist the Lord," expressly forbidden by the rabbi to us Jewish kids. The music was compellingly tuneful, the words an integral part of it as it built up to a climax. So I sang them without constraint. Besides, saying it didn't make it so.

"How come we don't have a Christmas tree like other people?" I asked my parents when I was five.

"We're Jews and Jews don't have a Christmas tree."

"Why not? Why can't Jews have a Christmas tree?" They just shrugged their shoulders and exchanged a stricken glance.

This was the depths of the Depression and my parents had very little money. But my father, incapable of denying me anything for long, ran out and, over my mother's objections, brought home a tiny, symmetrical spruce in a miniature tub. Its vivid greenness and conical perfection were no less than miraculous to me. With the palm of my hand, I stroked the shiny, silky branches upward in the direction of the needles and inhaled the piny odor.

Somehow as yet, I didn't quite grasp that a tree was supposed to be decorated. Besides which, my parents, having already made one hitherto unthinkable concession, were not about to make another even if I had known, and they didn't remind me. So the tree just stood there in mute testimony to a Jewish family's assimilation in the Golden Land; and also perhaps as a tribute to that wave of goodwill that sweeps over the world every year at Christmastide.

The 10 sisters and brothers in my mother's family were relatively tepid Jews with the exception of my mother and Yankel, the youngest brother. Only she and Yankel kept a kosher home and observed all the rituals and holidays. But Yankel was so belligerent in his Orthodoxy that the others good-naturedly called him "der fanatik." As luck would have it, the very night my father brought the tree home, Uncle Yankel, for some now-forgotten reason, came down from New York on the old Jersey Central.

No sooner did he step into the living room than he caught sight of the tree and exploded. "A Christmas tree! In your house a Christmas tree! How could you have a Christmas tree in your house?"

An earnest explanation

"Yankel, little Oinest wanted so bad that tree," said my mother. "So Abe went out and bought it for him. I don't like it, but he's five years old. When he'll gonna be a little older, he'll understand that Jews don't have no Christmas tree."

"You don't remember what the anti-Semites did to us in the old country?" roared Yankel, turning crimson and stamping up the down the tiny living room. "You don't remember the pogroms? The Cossacks galloping through our stetl waving their sabers? The beatings? The murders? That tree is for Christ's birthday, their God. And because they accuse us of being Christ-killers, they persecute us to this day!"

"Yankel look," my father said in his reasonable voice, "da boy's oney five. Wha' does a child know from these things? He sees the other kids have a tree and he wants one, too. It's natural. You live in America, you wanna be like everybody else."

"A Christmas tree! A Christmas tree in my sister's house!" bellowed Yankel, prancing around the room.

Suddenly he pounced on the tree and, grabbing its lower branches in one hand, its uppermost branches in the other, gave a mighty wrench and then another. But Yankel had underestimated his adversary: No way could the slender, deceptively pliant branches be stripped from the trunk.

He snatched at one frond after another, savaging them in a mighty effort to tear the tree apart. Finally he gave up, leaving a twisted clump drooping at the very top and, panting, stalked out into the night in the direction of downtown and the railroad station.

That little tree had undergone an assault of senseless rage much as the Jews themselves -- and countless other peoples -- over the millenniums. And it emerged tattered but upright. For me, that tree, only latterly and arbitrarily a Christian symbol, deserves to become a universal symbol of humanity's capacity to take a hard blow and keep going, to survive.

Today I no longer have a tree, but many Jews routinely buy one during the holiday season. Only now they call it the "Hanukkah bush," and no reasonable person sees any harm in it. I enjoy the carols as much as ever, and I still sing "Chri-ist the Lord" without a second thought. And, strange to say, I feel no less a Jew for it -- a true Christmas miracle.

Gerald Kamber is a free lance.

Pub Date: 12/20/96

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