December 16, 2004
The Vanishing Tree
The lush, fragrant green trees penned up in their Christmas tree lots waiting to be liberated, taken home, and decorated are like a
siren song to school kids everywhere. My daughters are no exception.
"I wish we could have a tree in our house. They're so pretty," one of my daughters will invariably say this time of year.
My daughters' wishes for a picturesque, festive tree will remain just wishes. But for three prior generations of their Southern California Jewish family, Christmas trees were a reality -- and they represented the American dream fulfilled.
My great-grandparents, and many of their relatives, came from the Lower East Side to Hollywood in 1917 as observant Jews. Like other Jews in the motion picture business they did what worked best for their careers and their fledgling industry. These Hollywood Jews embraced Americana. After all, weren't they adapting stories into moving pictures to entertain the American public? What could be more representative of the American dream than a lavishly decorated Christmas tree with piles of gifts beneath it?
Within a few years, my great-grandparents' house in Hollywood had a Christmas tree in the living room. When my great-grandfather became more of a Hollywood macher in the 1930s, they moved to Bel Air and had a bigger tree and a bigger pile of presents in the living room. My great-uncle remembers running down the marble hallway to find his presents. "My dad wore a Santa suit with a Jewish star on his head," he said.
The image symbolizes to me Hollywood Jews of that era. They co-opted American culture, but they didn't try to hide their Judaism.
I remember my dear, departed grandmother explaining to me, "We didn't want to be too Jewish in those days, dear. The motion picture business drew people from all over the world and we all had to get along and understand each other."
My mom grew up on Walden Drive in Beverly Hills in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Her parents had a tall, handsome tree on proud display in the living room window of their home. My grandfather had a complete Lionel train set he loved setting up beneath the tree.
"All of my Jewish friends had trees. The neighbors, who owned Lerner's Department Store, even had a creche on their front lawn," my mom said.
Rabbi Edgar Magnin, of Wilshire Boulevard Temple fame, lived up the street from them but didn't seem to mind. Magnin preached a secularized form of Judaism to his Reform congregation. "We were all assimilating," my mom explained.
By the time I was growing up in Palos Verdes, a largely non-Jewish locale, the Christmas tree was on its way out. Our tree was a 1-foot, scraggly looking pine in a pot, placed in the back room of the house "for the housekeeper."
My father grew up in a more traditional 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 tree mumbo jumbo. Mom missed the pageantry, the fun of decorating the tree. We kids also felt a little deprived not having a tree.
I remember going over to the house of my best friend in elementary school and drooling over her huge, gorgeous tree, meticulously 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 the scraggly potted pine which "we could plant in the yard" after the holidays ended and a bag of tinsel. We kids satisfied ourselves by stringing tinsel around the limbs and hanging a couple of ornaments, all that would fit. We then reluctantly carried the tree down the hall for the housekeeper.
Presently, we don't have any type of tree in our Solana Beach home. Not even a "Chanukah bush." The girls may have tree envy like I did, but I long ago realized that my father was right. Something about having a Christmas tree in the house feels confusing and sacrilegious. We're not Christian and we don't celebrate Christmas, so why the tree?
My husband and I agreed that our Jewish home would remain treeless. For most Jewish families this seems like an obvious conclusion. But my family's checkered past on the tree issue muddied the waters. In the fourth generation, the tree has finally been uprooted from this branch of our Southern California Jewish family.
Sharon Rosen is a mother of three and is currently working on her first novel.