That Tree by the Menorah

MILA GORBATOFF, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who fled the rampant anti-Semitism in Ukraine in 1988, lights a menorah every Hanukkah to commemorate her bond to a previously forbidden faith and the new freedoms that made it possible. After Hanukkah ends, another fixture of the holiday landscape appears in the living room of her apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, this one recalling everything she left behind: a Christmas tree. She wouldn’t call it that, though. Instead, she says: ”It’s a New Year’s tree.”

The designation is a bequest of her homeland. Dismissive of religion as obscurantist escapism, Soviet authorities gave year-end celebrations a Communist makeover, turning St. Nick into the proletariat-friendly Grandfather Frost and banning Christmas in favor of the secular New Year’s Eve.

The evening became a cherished occasion for festive family gatherings replete with food, drink and ”defitsitnye” — in short supply — gifts for the children, a rare moment of glitter and good will amid a generally drab and wary existence. At the center of it all, maligned but ubiquitous, was the ”yolka,” the newly rechristened ”New Year’s tree.”

”It was the only holiday that wasn’t mixed up with politics, so it was just presents, miracles, and fairy tales,” Ms. Gorbatoff said. ”All the decorations were saved year after year and handed down. Everyone was celebrating, every home and school. It was an incredible feeling.”

Upon emigrating, however, Soviet Jews realized that the yolka had a far more religious connotation in a city like New York. For refugees from a country in which identity was imposed from above, the debate about whether to have a tree for the holidays was an early signal that here it was an individual’s responsibility. And many people decided that a Christmas tree hardly diminished their Jewishness.

”There’s nothing religious in our Christmas trees today because there was nothing religious in our yolkas,” 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.”

Others cover their bases, just in case. Ms. Gorbatoff, who has a toy rabbi next to her menorah and a miniature Santa Claus — er, Grandfather Frost — under her New Year’s tree, usually buys the tree after Christmas. And she keeps the menorah lit until well into January, when the tree comes down weeks after the end of Hanukkah. ”That’s how I reconciled it for myself,” she said.

Because Soviet year-end festivities lacked the commercialism that sends American Christmas tree vendors into the streets minutes after Thanksgiving, trees were usually bought just a few days before New Year’s. Inadvertently, that custom came in handy in the United States, as emigres of modest means searched for a beloved, but pricey, reminder of home.

”The first couple of years, we got them for free because we’d wait until after Christmas, when people started throwing theirs out, and then pick one up,” said Marina Unrod, a psychologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, describing a veritable rite of passage for new Soviet immigrants.

To have a tree in the house again ”was a return to childhood,” said Ira Godina, a graphic designer from Minsk who lives in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
”That smell of pine, and oranges and tangerines! They were hard to come by in the Soviet Union, and appeared only before New Year’s. If there weren’t enough toys, sometimes we’d put the fruit up on the tree as decorations. So now we have them, too.”

A ”New Year’s tree” in a Jewish home provokes its fair share of double takes, whether from American Jews unfamiliar with the custom or from Russian Jews who have discarded the habit.

”For me, the tree is non-Jewish,” said Yevgeniya Shpigelman, a mammographer who emigrated from Kiev in 1989. ”It belongs to another people. If you have a tree and light Hanukkah candles, it’s two-faced.”

NEVERTHELESS, the tree also has its staunch defenders. ”After we came, I was sent to an Orthodox yeshiva in Bensonhurst,” Dr. Unrod said, ”and I was very careful not to talk about the tree in school because it would’ve been very un-kosher. Americans don’t quite understand, but for us, it’s a completely secularized thing.”

According to Rabbi Aryeh Katzin, a Soviet emigre and the principal of a Russian-Jewish yeshiva in Bensonhurst, a Christmas tree in a Jewish home does not violate religious law. Instead, he said: ”It’s a problem of: Who am I? That’s a much more essential question.”

Indeed, some Russian-Jewish immigrants have gradually abandoned the tradition. Even in those homes, however, the yolka has been an indicator of the ways in which an emigre culture assimilates.

”When I was a child here, having the tree felt like an expression of my American identity, whereas for my parents it was an expression of their Russian identity,” said Eleonora Rabinovich, a Citigroup product-development specialist whose family settled in Jackson Heights, Queens. ”Over time, though, it flipped. My parents didn’t need to do it any more, whereas I started wanting to underline the difference in my identity: This is what’s cool about me, this is what we do. I was proud of the story.”

Nonetheless, an informal survey of several Christmas-tree stands in heavily Russian-Jewish neighborhoods like Gravesend, Brooklyn, suggests that the yolka will be a centerpiece of many Russian living rooms. At Stillwell Avenue and Avenue S, in Bensonhurst, where John Taylor is moonlighting as a tree salesman, an estimated half of the 200 trees the stand had sold had gone to Russians. Several blocks away, at Avenue U and 86th Street, Peter Kontaris and Cris Bianco offered only slightly more modest percentages. ”Russians come here every day,” Bianco said, though there was no way to verify how many were Jewish. ”And after Christmas, it’s all Russian.”

Many don’t even wait that long. ”Our tree isn’t a symbol of Christmas,” Ms. Gorbatoff said, ”but what’s so bad about celebrating Christmas, anyway? When we came, we were so far from America. Christmas is a link to this world. I can’t reject it, and don’t want to. It doesn’t make me less Jewish.”

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