Sunday, December 19, 2004

"Americans don't quite understand, but for us, it's a completely secularized thing."--Marina Unrod on her tree

Neither a Christmas tree nor a Chanukah bush, the elka may at first sight look like a bit of both.

The "New Years trees" in the houses of American Jews who've immigrated from the former Soviet Union may seem just like Christmas trees, but have nothing to do with Christianity, writes Boris Fishman in the City section. These relics of a secular holiday aren't the same as the Christmas trees oh-so-hypocritically placed by native-born American Jews in their living rooms. No, Russian Jews are simply being Russian and Jewish, and their trees are not an attempt to recreate a WASP lifestyle.

"There's nothing religious in our Christmas trees today because there was nothing religious in our elkas," said Vladimir Kartsev, a literary agent who emigrated from Moscow in 1989. "It isn't a betrayal of Jewish values at all, because it isn't an adoption of a new faith."

When I first heard high school friends mention that they were Jewish but had trees, I assumed that the whole "New Years tree" line was no different from the all-American "Chanukah bush" one. It took me a while to understand that the tradition came out of an areligious movement, that this was a Soviet thing, not a Christian one.

In his piece on the elka, Fishman neglects to mention one reason the trees are problematic: though not symbolic of Christianity, they are symbolic of Soviet communism. Soviet-born American Jews might have hostile feelings towards communism but neutral ones towards American Christianity. The elka may not be a sign of adoption of a new faith, but it is a celebration of an ideology that has historically not been kind to Judaism or religion in general.

That said, I find the elka easier to take than the American Jew's Christmas tree--the former is by now a tradition in Russian Jewish families, while the latter is a conscious effort to hide one's own traditions, since, in America, it's something of a tradition for Jews not to have trees. And it's not a big deal, not having a tree, if you never had one--Chanukah means a chance to play with matches (supervised, of course), so I never felt I was missing out.

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