Natalie Portman's Christmas Tree
After 35 years, Natalie Portman’s dream is about to come true. The award-winning Jewish actress is going to have a Christmas tree in her home this year.
Not only that, she thinks having a Christmas tree is every Jew’s secret wish.
She told the Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon that since the first night of Hanukkah coincides with Christmas this year, her family has decided to celebrate both holidays together.
“I was asking my husband, ‘Is it okay for your family if we don’t have a tree?’ and then my parents were like, ‘We can get a tree….'” Portman told Fallon. “So excited! Like my whole life no Christmas tree, and then all of a sudden they have this great excuse, because it’s every Jew’s kind of secret wish to have a Christmas tree… Why can’t we have that too?”
Without realizing it, Natalie Portman has captured how the battle of Hanukkah is being waged today. The December Dilemma, when Jews feel conflicted by the Christmas onslaught – especially this year when the first night of Hanukkah and Christmas eve coincide, is no accident. It reflects the Jews’ contemporary spiritual challenge that has its roots in the Hanukkah story.
The threat posed to the Jews living in Israel by the ancient Greeks was unique. It wasn’t a physical threat of annihilation that the Jewish people had experienced in the past. It was the first time the Jews faced a religious war. The Greeks weren’t aiming to wipe out the Jewish people; they wanted to wipe out Judaism and its belief in an Infinite God Who creates, sustains and is involved in the universe. This was a battle for holding onto our spiritual uniqueness and identity.
Major events in Jewish history have spiritual antecedents. In the words of the great Jewish commentator, Nachmanides, “The actions of our forefathers are signs for the children.” We can get a deeper understanding of events by examining their spiritual roots that are carving out patterns in Jewish history.
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Hanukkah, Essay 2) explains that the war between the Maccabees and the ancient Greeks stems from the incident of Jacob wrestling with the guardian angel of Esau. Jacob had faced physical threats to his life from Laban and Esau; this encounter was the first time he confronted a spiritual danger.
Only after battling with the angel and overcoming him, did Jacob receive the name Yisrael, Israel. “No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome” (Genesis, 32:29).
It is our Jewish identity which is at stake in this spiritual battle between Jacob and the angel, and between the Jews in the time of Hanukkah and the Greeks.. Will the Jews choose to assimilate and become Hellenized, adopting the non-Jewish worldview and reject their distinctiveness, or will they stand up for their Jewish identity with fierce pride and maintain their unique heritage?
Hanukkah is not a one-time battle. Every generation of Jews is confronted with this same spiritual conflict during this time of year; only its outer garb is different. We only earn the moniker of "Israel" and attain our Jewish identity by overcoming the non-Jewish influences that beckon us.
Don't dismiss Natalie Portman’s desire for a Christmas tree as a trivial celebrity gossip item. It signifies the contemporary Jew’s Hanukkah battle to hold onto his or her Jewish identity and not assimilate into the larger non-Jewish culture that seeks to erase our distinctiveness. How sad and painful it is that this prominent actress is sending such a wrong message at exactly the time we need to embrace our Jewish identity and distance ourselves from the powerful influences of the pervasive non-Jewish culture..
Hanukkah is the time to take a stand for being Jewish, to be like the menorah's oil that stubbornly refuses to assimilate in to the surrounding body of water. It's the time to express your secret wish of bringing forth your inner light that is embedded in your Jewish soul and to ignore the Christmas lights that may entice but are not your own.
Jewish identity can't be created in a vacuum. It's forged by igniting it with the radiant source of light that stems from the Torah. As we light our menorahs whose flames represent the fire and wisdom of Torah, let's take great pride in being Jewish and ensure that we carry the torch to the next generation.