LOS ANGELES (JTA) — This jingly freilich season, with Christmas falling in the middle of Chanukah, may be as good a time as any to examine an interfaith-oriented product called the Hanukkah Tree Topper. It’s a 6-inch plastic Star of David attached to a stainless steel coil that allows the star to sit atop a Christmas tree.
Typically a five- or multi-pointed ornament representing the Star of Bethlehem or an angel is placed atop the tree, though hundreds of other tree topper designs are available, including crosses and Santas, even a Yoda.
On a recent flight, the Hanukkah Tree Topper caught my eye in the SkyMall magazine. Soon I found out that the ornament, which has been on the market for three years, also is available online at Home Depot and Sears.
According to its Jewish creator, Morri Chowaiki, the topper “has been the No. 1-selling tree topper on Amazon.com and has sold in the thousands,” including at hundreds of mom-and-pop stores. It has been successful enough to even have several competitors.
During the Chanukah and Christmas seasons, especially since the 1980s and with the rise of intermarriage, there has been a kind of growing holiday mashup that began with “mixed blessings” greeting cards and reached a pinnacle of sorts in 2003 when the Fox Network aired an episode of “The O.C.” series titled “The Best Chrismukkah Ever.” The episode featured Seth Cohen, a character with a Jewish father and Christian mother, who declares he is the inventor of the new holiday.
In a reaction soon after in USA Today, “Chrismukkah” was denounced jointly by the New York Catholic League and the New York Board of Rabbis, who called the created holiday “insulting” to Christians and Jews.
Would any board of rabbis endorse the Chanukah tree topper as “good for the Jews”? Not a dreidel’s chance. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a market of potential Jewish buyers who might consider the toppers as “goods for the Jews.”
Chowaiki, who has a background in marketing, cites the near 50 percent intermarriage rate of the year 2000 National Jewish Population Study in estimating the potential audience for his topper at “between 500,000 and 1 million households.” He sees them as the “co-exist” market.
He says he created the topper for his own family; Chowaiki is married to a non-Jew and raising his children Jewishly.
“I never intended it as a gag gift. This is not Hanukkah Harry,” he said, referring to a popular novelty item of previous holiday seasons and a character on “Saturday Night Live.” He also doesn’t see his product as “blasphemy.”
Still for many Jews, Chowaiki may need to contend with the “ick” factor. In New York at a trade show, while many passers-by exhibited interest, one referred to his product as “disgusting.”
Then there’s the issue of the tree that his product tops.
Growing up in the 1960s in a neighborhood where trees and lights decorated most homes, my parents regularly denounced “those people who had a Chanukah bush.” Then as well as now, in many areas of Judaism, the bush is still considered assimilative. The debate has even entered into children’s literature with the publishing in 1983 of Susan Sussman’s “There’s No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein.”
Yet today the market may have shifted. With another marketer selling and advertising dreidel stockings in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, it seems we now may feel freer than ever to wear our assimilation openly.
Not that we haven’t assimilated before. Several sources refer to influences of the Italian Carnival as a source for the Purim tradition of wearing masks and costumes.
Historically the Star of David, or Magen David, is a symbol in flux; it is not mentioned in rabbinic literature until the Middle Ages. Nor is it a purely religious symbol, as many now wear the star simply to show Jewish identity. I’ve seen huge gold Stars of David hawked by street vendors in the downtown garment district of Los Angeles, spotted even bigger ones on the facades of evangelical churches and eaten Star of David-shaped cookies.
Is the Hanukkah Tree Topper simply continuing a trend of broadening usage?
“It’s the mixing of the two religions that makes this different,” said Karen Kushner, the chief education director of InterfaithFamily, a web site for interfaith couples exploring “Jewish life and making Jewish choices.”
However, the intermarriage statistics and the existence of sites such as InterfaithFamily seem to indicate that Jews as a group are quite open to mixing.
“There are couples living very Jewish lives, yet have a corner of Christmas in their homes,” Kushner said. “I don’t see it as a catastrophe.”
Still, she was somewhat skeptical of the Hanukkah Tree Topper. Speaking of the move toward mixing Christmas and Chanukah, Kushner said, “There are people trying to create a big product around it and it doesn’t go anywhere.”
Then why the surfeit of six-pointed Christmas tree toppers?
“The most positive reviews are from people who are not Jewish,” Chowaiki said, adding that the topper could be seen by non-Jews as “a symbol of support for the State of Israel.”
But he also notes, “I am not promoting Christianity. It is not our intention to promote that Jesus was Jewish or that he was born in Israel.”
“You can’t change inferfaith families. I wanted to give these people something to celebrate with.”
Hanukkah Tree Topper: 18.99 at Amazon.com (www.amazon.com/Interfaith-Decorations-Hanukkah-Tree-Topper/dp/B002NWC1YG).
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