(Originally published in a December 1990 Twin Cities Reader. After my mom passed away in August 2020, I found this clip in her desk drawer, where she saved it.)
I seem to remember that there was a Hanukkah bush in our house on two consecutive holidays when I was a child; my parents swear it was only one.
They’re probably right, but it doesn’t matter what they think. Hanukkah, after all, is a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar that has become grossly inflated so Jewish children won’t feel left out of the gift-giving hoopla. Since it’s been redesigned for kids, it’s what kids remember that counts.
The concept behind the Hanukkah bush is simple. It’s a Christmas tree — the happy holiday staple that represents green hope in the middle of depressing winter — that somehow took a left turn into a Jewish living room.
Alas, memories of the Hanukkah bush are not happy ones for me. Among Jews, gift-giving at Hanukkah is a necessary concession to more mores — not because we live in a predominantly Christian nation, but an overwhelmingly materialist one. The Hanukkah bush, on the other hand, represented a caving-in to someone else’s religious dogma, and that’s what stung.
I’m sure my mother and father meant well —they are grizzled veterans of parenting now, but back then they were babes in the woods, and they just couldn’t gauge how carefully a Jewish family must balance the lessons that its kids belong to both a large, American culture and a minority religious one.
We were one of the few Jewish families in a predominantly Protestant part of Long Island — not the ethnic part close to New York City, but the remote, WASP-y territory surrounding the oh-so-wealthy Hamptons. In the face of an overpowering numerical disadvantage, my parents temporarily surrendered. There were no other Jewish families to celebrate Hanukkah with, anyway.
I think they knew in their gut that the Hanukkah bush was a bad idea — as I remember, they unveiled this new holiday concept with a sheepish enthusiasm that even a 4-year-old could see through. The tree itself reflected their ambivalence — it was a small, timid thing, dwarfish enough to sit on the coffee table.
My parents are not indecisive people, and this tremulousness profoundly disturbed me. Their vague discomfort seemed to hang over the holiday season like a relentless drizzle; maybe that’s why I remember the time so well a quarter-century later, even though I couldn’t tell you what I got.
I know what some of you may be thinking: The early Christians ripped off the concept from the pagans, so why couldn’t Jews follow a couple of millennia later?
The easy and all-too-glib answer is that Jews really don’t want to be Christians (paganism is a bit more tempting). Jews may go to synagogue religiously or not at all, but the one thing most of us proudly cling to is our identity as minority survivors in a steady succession of majority cultures. Ideally, such a history makes you empathetic with the oppressed, and teaches you to distrust the argument that sheer numbers mark the only path to virtue.
Yet all this was threatened by a single diminutive sprig of foliage. I think the tree’s cheery purpose acted like a Trojan Horse — we were long used to repelling onerous-seeming Christian concepts like original sin and earthly suffering to get to heaven, but were subverted by a benign plant in our midst.
I know this will seem odd during the holiday season, but I have Saddam Hussein to thank for jogging my memory of the Hanukkah bush after all these years. It was the Iraqi leader’s invasion of Kuwait that prompted President Bush to announce a counterattack to preserve, in his words, a “new world order.”
Many people took it the way Bush tried to sell it — that we should promote a peaceful, non-interventionist world society. Still, Bush’s particular choice of words made my blood turn cold. Maybe this is something only Jews could appreciate, but the last guy to declare a “new world order” with a straight face was Adolf Hitler, when he was talking about making the world uniformly blond and blue-eyed.
Fact is, any Jew with an appreciation of history fears a single belief system, because we usually aren’t included in it. Minorities seldom are. The world seems to be losing its diversity as fast as its rain forests, and I can’t help feeling that a “new world order,” no matter how well intentioned, will soon lead to less choice, not more, and the rest of the world will face the relentless pressure to accept a more significant kind of Hanukkah bush to appease the forces of conformity.
But hey, this is holiday season! Even though Hanukkah is minor, it’s all about overcoming long odds in the face of overwhelming numbers. Hanukkah celebrates the Maccabees, Jewish soldiers who ran from the Syrians and hid in a temple with enough oil to survive 24 hours. The fuel instead lasted for eight full days, allowing them to avoid the Syrian manhunt. The Maccabees’ tale is especially ironic this holiday season — it’s basically the story of miraculous energy conservation keeping warriors safe, instead of our own wasteful oil consumption putting our soldiers in peril.
There’s no happy ending in the Persian Gulf, but if the conclusion of my own family saga is a metaphor, there’s still hope.
Three or four years after the Hanukkah bush debacle, we moved to Des Moines, Iowa. (Snicker if you will, but the city has a Jewish community large enough to fill two synagogues and a temple, and it made our Jewish identity easier to preserve.) Anyway, one winter day before the holiday, my dad went down to his workshop and carved a beautiful walnut menorah, the object that holds the eight candles that market each day the Maccabees’ oil lasted.
Mom swears dad was motivated by a desire to purge memories of the misbegotten tree, and long after that spruce had turned to dust, Dad’s menorah still graces our house. To me, it’s a symbol of how individual identity survives, especially after it is tested. Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, and even though I am in Minneapolis and they are in Des Moines, I imagine the menorah sitting on the coffee table, right where the Hanukkah bush once stood.