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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

Zakhor! The Christmas Tree as a Reminder of Jewish Tragedy

By Shelomo Alfassa / December 24, 2009

One of the origins of what modern society knows as a 'Christmas tree' dates back to the Middle Ages in Germany where trees dressed with hanging apples were used during December as props in theatrical plays which were put on to educate the illiterate masses on Biblical history. The tradition of an adorned tree then moved to England and later elsewhere. This period, when the trees were being celebrated, corresponded to a period when the Jews of Europe, the early Ashkenazi Jews, were facing massive persecutions and some of the most brutal experiences Jews ever faced.

Long before there ever were Jews in Poland or other more eastwardly European countries, the Jews had a growing and vibrant population in France and Germany. During this period, preaching by the Roman Catholic Pope brought about the first 'Crusade,' which subsequently brought about an inspired outbreak of anti-Jewish hatred by the populations of most non-Jews in Europe. In parts of France and Germany, Jews were perceived as just as the enemy for it was told that they were responsible for crucifying the leader of the Christian religion many centuries earlier.

"...that tree is symbolical of a religion hostile to ours,
and every leaf is red with the blood and wet
with the tears of our martyrs, due to its hostility

Jews in Europe were killed outright by the Christian Crusaders as well as their local supporters. Thousands of Jews in France and Germany were tortured, their possessions taken, and their goods were sold for ridiculously small sums. Sometimes the Christians burned the dead bodies to obtain the coins which they believed these people had swallowed or hid about their bodies. An account of 1096 discusses one example of the tragedy the Jews of Ashkenaz suffered:

Through the cities of the Rhine and the Main and also the Danube, they either utterly destroyed the execrable race of the Jews wherever they found them or forced them into the bosom of the Church…They rose in a spirit of cruelty against the Jewish people scattered throughout these cities and slaughtered them without mercy, especially in the Kingdom of Lorraine, asserting it to be the beginning of their expedition and their duty against the enemies of the Christian faith. This slaughter of Jews was done first by citizens of Cologne; they destroyed the houses and synagogues of the Jews and divided among themselves a very large amount of money… Breaking the bolts and doors, they killed the Jews, about seven hundred in number, who in vain resisted the force and attack of so many thousands. They killed the women, also, and with their swords pierced tender children of whatever age and sex. The Jews, seeing that their Christian enemies were attacking them and their children, and that they were sparing no age, likewise fell upon one another, brother, children, wives, and sisters, and thus they perished at each other's hands. Horrible to say, mothers cut the throats of nursing children with knives and stabbed others, preferring them to perish thus by their own hands rather than to be killed by the weapons of the uncircumcised. From this cruel slaughter of the Jews a few escaped; and a few because of fear, rather than because of love of the Christian faith, were baptized.

Another account of the period recalls further horrors:

Not a congregation within their reach did the inflexible Crusaders spare…In one short day it was wiped out of history, and the few crowded streets in which generation after generation of men had lived, hoped, pined and died, was a wreck of masonry piled with mangled corpses. 'The Rhine,'[river]…was thick with the corpses of murdered Jews. All the cities of the Danube, of Austria and Hungary resounded with the cries and swam with the blood of Jews, the vast number of them scornfully rejecting all terms fairly spitting and cursing the images and crucifixes held up to them for idolatrous adoration. "The Lord is our God" [the Shema] was in one their answer and their dying utterance for they were immediately hacked to pieces or severed piece-meal. Sad indeed is the story of the Jews, breathing in one the most frightful horrors and the most unflinching heroism…Town after town was visited and the same scenes of blood repeated. Jews were ripped open, disemboweled alive, torn asunder by wild horses driven in opposite directions, their flesh scraped off their bones, sawn in halves.

Hanukah often falls during the period of the Christian holiday of Christmas. And while many people view the Christmas tree as the most glorious and best-loved symbol of the Christmas season, many Jews see the tree and are reminded of the period of early Jewish destruction in Europe. To the educated and knowledgeable Jew, the tree is interpreted as a symbol of two thousand years of virulent persecution by Christians against his people.

Dr. Henry Pereira Mendes was rabbi and rabbi emeritus from 1877-1937 of Congregation Shearith Israel (the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York--the first Jewish congregation in America) at a period when Christmas was becoming a national holiday in America. He was one of the most influential and respected religious leaders of his time. It was during his lifetime that that many of the rich and socially prominent Jews were flocking to the newly formed 'Reform' movement as did many synagogues that had been in existence for some time. These congregations and people surrendered the traditions of their Torah in order to better proclaim their American character. During this period Dr. Mendes was vehemently outspoken about Jewish assimilation, and in response to Jews starting to keep Christmas trees in their home, the rabbi wrote, "To have that tree in a Jewish home stamps the father a traitor and the mother a traitoress to our religion, to duty and to God."

Dr. Mendes was the founder of the Orthodox Union (OU) and was president of it during the first 16 years of its existence. He was also a co-founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary (which was originally Orthodox) with a fellow Sephardic Jew. Dr. Mendes wrote in his book Ruach Hayim, "Allow no Christmas tree in the home. From the viewpoint of history, that tree is symbolical of a religion hostile to ours, and every leaf is red with the blood and wet with the tears of our martyrs, due to its hostility."

Christmas trees are a time-honored symbol of the Christian religion and insomuch should be appreciated and cherished by Christians, not Jews. There is nothing Jewish about bringing a tree into a Jewish home. The tree has no happy memories for Kelal Yisrael (the Jewish people) and should in reality be a reminder that we are different, we are people of the Torah and the Torah exhorts us to remember our past-even the sad parts. The people of Israel have given their soul over the years in order to maintain the values of the Torah of Israel and the Jewish identity. Jews should continue to follow this path of the Jewish people's tradition and not give in to place non-Jewish symbols in their homes.



FYI: In a list of 35 cities in the North American Jewish Data Bank, in most cities, 20% to 30% of the Jewish households say that they "always, usually or sometimes" have a Christmas tree. Here are a few examples: Washington D.C. 27%, Philadelphia, 23%, St. Louis 22%, Los Angeles 20%, and Detroit 15%. This means almost 30% of Jews have a Christmas tree in their home.


© Shelomo Alfassá