12/21/2014 05:42 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2015

The Rabbi and the Christmas Tree

"Mom, can we get a Christmas tree this year for you in Windham?" asked my oldest daughter Isabelle, who was 8 at the time.

"Honey, we aren't going to be having a Christmas tree in Windham. It's so sweet you to want that for me, but it's your grandparents' home, and I am sure a Christmas tree in their home is out of the question. Don't worry, we'll find other ways for you to help me celebrate Christmas."

"C'mon, Mom, it'll just be a little one to sit on top of your bedside table. It'll be nice. I know you are missing being in Savannah this year for Christmas and missing Mimi. Can't we just ask them?"

Just before Christmas the previous year, my mother ("Mimi" to her grandchildren) had died in my childhood home in Savannah, Georgia. For the first time in my life I had decided to spend Christmas away from my family of origin, away from Savannah. It was not an uncomplicated decision, but I had made peace with it. I was, however, confused about how to celebrate Christmas as the only Christian in the country house of my husbands' parents, aka Sweetie and Salty, and several other aunties, uncles, cousins, and my husband and children -- all of whom are Jewish.

Our Christmases in Savannah came and went with well-worn family rituals: opening stockings hung over the fire place first thing in the morning, eating sweet coffeecake for breakfast, bursting into the living room and tearing through presents with Mom pleading, "wait, let me write that down, wait, you need to slow down, what about the thank you notes," a grand family dinner with grandparents and cousins, followed by a family football game. Mom decorated the house so that it felt saturated with the warmth many associate with Christmas: garlands up the bannister and over the door, an Advent wreath on the dining room table made from our Boxwood hedge, and of course a Christmas tree decorated with fancy ornaments (on the top away from little fingers) and years of homemade ornaments made by three little and not so little daughters (on the bottom). It's not that I loved everything associated with the holiday season. There were some things that had even become onerous to me. But the tradition was there. Like an anchor.

This year I had no anchor. I had confusion and grief.

Isabelle, however, was not confused. In fact, she was very clear, and in her Isabelle-way, she had begun to plan Christmas for me. It started with the first night of Chanukah when she and her sister Sophia presented their Chanukah gift to me. It was a small branch of a Christmas tree stuck into a slice of a Christmas tree trunk. A plastic ornament with the words "Merry Christmas" dangled from the bough. "Here Mommy, we bought it with our own money, Sophia paid 25 cents and I paid 75 cents. Happy Chanukah!" I nearly fell over with the layers of thoughtfulness wrapped up in this gift.

Then the pressure to get a Christmas tree began. It built for two weeks. In New York City you have to walk through four different Christmas tree vendors to get to a school only 7 blocks away. Each walk to and from their Jewish day school involved multiple conversations with vendors, longingly looking at the trees, and discussions about the politics of having a tree in the Windham house which usually ending with my saying, "It isn't going to happen." But Isabelle pushed. Negotiated. Pleaded.

You might say I didn't have enough parental backbone - that if "no" was the answer, I should have said clearly, once and for all, "No." But I wasn't sure what I needed at that point to celebrate Christmas as I was still so driven by the grief of losing my mother. I was asking myself the questions few of us ask anymore: "What is the true meaning of Christmas? And without family traditions to anchor me, how do I celebrate whatever that true meaning is, from scratch?" I wasn't coming up with many answers, but Isabelle was.

After consulting with Peter, I called my mother-in-law, Sweetie.

"It's going to be in your room, right?" Sweetie asked.


"I don't see any reason why not. It will help you celebrate your holiday, especially without your mother, you are away from home, and it's in your room."

With great surprise, I turned to Isabelle and said, "OK. We'll have a little Christmas tree in my room."

For the next several days, Isabelle worked those Christmas tree vendors harder than I am sure they have been worked in a long time. Day one: she found a sweet little "sit on top of a table" tree for $15. Day two: she asked the man to set it aside for her. Day three: she told him there was a larger tree down the street for $15 she could get and would he put this other larger one aside for her? Day four: she asked him to throw in a stand for free. He did.

On the day we left, we packed up the minivan, drove over to Amsterdam and 86th street, and Peter and Isabelle hopped out to get the tree. Ten minutes later they appeared at my window and ask me to open the doors. The "sit on top of the table" tree had grown 5 feet and wouldn't fit in the back of the minivan. It had to go in between the seats squished between coolers and backpacks and children.

As we headed down West End Avenue towards the 96th street entrance to the West Side Highway, the phone rang. My screen said it was the Rabbi from the Chabad Early Learning Center, our son's Jewish nursery school. But I was not in the mood to talk to anyone. I just wanted to get out of the city and get on the road. I let it go into voicemail. He called back one more time. Again, to voicemail. On his third try, I got worried and answered.

"Hi Eleanor! Have you left the city? Your brothers and sisters-in-law have left already and I have the mezuzahs for your mother-in-law's house in Windham. I really want to get them to Windham as soon as I can." A mezuzah is a familiar portion of the Hebrew Bible ("You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart...") held in a decorative case that is attached to the doorways in many Jewish homes - and in addition to the halakhic or legal reasons for being affixed to the doorways, for many Jews it also functions as a sort of protective talisman of the household. Very important, in other words, to get them up on a newly renovated house as soon as possible.

"We're just about to get on the highway... literally," I reply. "Can it wait till the new year?"

"No, no, I really want to get them to Windham for your mother-in-law. Just stay right there. I'll run to your car from here. I'll be right there."

We were only a few blocks from the school so I sighed and told him, "It's fine, no need, no need, we'll come to you. Be there in a sec." He had already hung up. As we headed away from the highway on 96th street, I remembered we had a Christmas tree in our car, and I was suddenly overcome with guilt. I felt like I was about to be caught.

"Kids, Daniel's school Rabbi is about to meet us to give us the mezuzot for Windham. Let's be a little quiet about the Christmas tree, ok?" I heard Isabelle turn back to her siblings, Daniel and Sophia, and say:

"Quiet about the Christmas tree! We don't want the Rabbi to see it!"

When I heard her echo me, I realized what I was doing. I was acting as if I was committing some crime. I saw myself cowering, making myself smaller, so that I could avoid the disapproval of a Jewish authority figure in our life. And I was teaching my kids to do the same.

It took me a second to register all of this, to feel the shame of disapproval, then the anger that I was hiding myself. It was a microcosm of how I had felt off and on for years with respect to Judaism and Jewish authority figures in my life. A torrent of words fell out of my mouth.

"Forget what I just said, it's my Christmas tree, I am a Christian minister, it's absolutely fine, we have nothing to hide! Dammit! I am not going to hide!!" My kids looked quizzically at me, as if to say, "What's her problem?!" Suddenly Daniel shouted, "wabbi chime, wabbi chime!" It took me a minute to realize he was shouting "Rabbi Chayyim," and that Rabbi Chayyim was running down the sidewalk in the opposite direction, presumably to catch us before we turned onto the West Side Highway.

After yelling from our car, he did an about-face. As he approached the car, despite my righteous anger, I still felt like a person caught speeding. Like I needed to give a speech as I rolled down my window: "I know I am a Christian minister but my kids really are Jewish, they were converted by orthodox Rabbis, and I really am doing my best to raise them Jewish, I didn't mean to have a Christmas tree in my car, it just sort of happened, I mean I know I put it there but, ummm, ok, it's long story. I'll be sure to put up the mezuzahs, I promise...can I get off with just a warning this time? Please, sir?"

"Shabbat Shalom," the Rabbi exclaimed as he passed me the mezuzot and dashed off, hardly looking at me, much less inside of our car.

"Wow, that was no big deal," I said to Peter. "I'm not sure he even noticed the tree."

"So what if he did?! It's your tree, and we your Jewish family want you to have one this Christmas."

When we got to Windham, I went upstairs to prepare dinner - Shabbat dinner, by the way. An hour later I returned downstairs to our room and found the most beautiful gift I could have received that Christmas. The tree was decorated with all kinds of ornaments that I didn't even know we had.

"Isabelle, where did you get all of these ornaments?"

"When I went to the Nutcracker with Mrs. Smith, she asked if I wanted anything from the gift shop, and I asked for the nutcracker ornaments...and I asked my teacher to teach me how to make the origami ornaments, and the card at the base of the tree I made with Orly." Orly, her Hebrew tutor. When I opened the card, one side said, "Merry Christmas, Mommy," and on the other side it said the same thing - in Hebrew script that I needed her to translate!

Words can not describe my feelings of gratitude for Isabelle in that moment, for her care, her ingenuity, her perseverance, her ability to envision what I -- and she - needed that Christmas even and especially when I could not...and for the way in which she did not get caught up in the meshuganah about Christmas trees like the rest of us. She saw what truly mattered about Christmas for me - love incarnate - and birthed a small family miracle.