Deck the Halls with Boughs of… Lieberman?
JNS.org – High in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, Chuck Lieberman sells around 200 hundred Fraser firs a year to families who drive up to his Swinging Bridge Farm to “choose and cut” a Christmas tree.
Located in the small community of Deep Gap, it’s a seasonal business that Lieberman has learned to integrate into his own holiday calendar.
Lieberman, who is a member of the Watauga County Christmas Tree Association, also likes to jokingly refer to himself as “President of the North Carolina Jewish Christmas Tree Growers Association,” an organization which under scrutiny, he admits has only two members— himself and his wife Eleanor.
The grower has met Jews in the Christmas tree ornament business, and one who owns a larger Christmas tree farm, but he has yet to meet another Jew like himself who actually lives and works on a tree farm, though he suspects there are others.
“Wherever you go there are Jews,” said Lieberman, who was sitting in a solar-powered golf cart that he uses to get around the farm that he purchased in 1980.
In 2001, during his first season of “choose and cut,” Lieberman said, “We didn’t know what to expect.” Previously, he had sold his yearly crop of Christmas trees wholesale, but found it to be “a lot of work.”
Since switching over, he has found that people enjoy the experience of driving up to his farm and buying their tree directly from the grower. After the drive up, the kids are “supercharged,” said Lieberman, who also leads tours of his 16-acre farm, which features a swinging bridge he built over a seven-foot-deep gully that he insists on calling the “abyss.”
The rest of the year, Lieberman, who has a master’s degree in fruit crops from the University of Florida, grows u-pick blueberries and rhododendron, and has an orangery—a greenhouse-like structure that during winter months protects citrus trees growing in containers—at the farm’s 3,200-foot elevation.
Do Lieberman’s customers care that he is Jewish? “No,” he said, adding that probably only his neighbors know. “I don’t give out advice on how to decorate,” said Lieberman, who has never had a Christmas tree in his home, which is located on a hill overlooking the farm.
The month of December is busiest for the farmer who, though he has a seasonal assistant, often finds himself on the hillsides of his farm helping his customers harvest their tress, especially on weekends.
“Some people find their tree in five minutes, others take three hours,” observed Lieberman, whose trees are grown from seedlings and take between 10 and 11 years to grow to around six feet in height.
When customers find the right tree, they either shout out or wave a measuring pole, and Lieberman cuts it down for them. Lieberman then drags the tree to a hand-operated bailer that wraps the tree in netting, pulling the branches up closer to the trunk. He then ties the tree to their car.
Lieberman, a self-described expert in what he calls “twineage,” noted that, “If I tie it, it always stays on the car. I’ve never lost a tree.”
To a departing customer who had purchased a Christmas tree, a wreath, and a small live tree in a container, Lieberman, who the day before had a Hanukkah lunch of potato latkes he had fried himself, said “Merry Christmas, come again.”
“It’s a nice time of year,” said Lieberman.
Besides his duty as leader of the Jewish Christmas tree growers, Lieberman has served as president of another Jewish organization, a larger one—Temple of the High Country, located in nearby Boone. At the synagogue he has taught Hebrew, and officiated as a lay leader at 21 bar and bat mitzvahs, including that of his own son, Justin. “By teaching all those children, I’ve learned a lot more,” said Lieberman, who is from south Florida.
When his son was in 3rd grade, Lieberman recalled having a bus full of students up to the farm for a Tu B’Shevat field trip. “We planted a seedling,” he said.
Lieberman, who sometimes sells two or more trees to a customer—other family members put in orders for a tree—has also sold trees to Jewish customers. “[We sell] to mixed families, we have a lot of them up here,” explained Lieberman. “A lot of them are embarrassed to come to me to buy their tree,” he said, adding that he is not embarrassed to sell them one.
Nationally, the recent Pew Research Center survey on American Jewry reported that nearly a third of Jews said they had a Christmas tree in their home, a number that rises to 71 percent in intermarried households.
After 12 years of selling Christmas trees to families, Lieberman now sees himself as “pro-Christmas.” Before, he wanted “to go visit another country during the holiday season.” Now he easily tolerates the decorations and a trip to the mall.
“Being a farmer has made me much more aware of certain things,” said Lieberman, who sometimes wraps tefillin and says weekday morning prayers.
“In the shemonah esrei, one of the blessings is for a good harvest and an abundant year,” Lieberman said.
“That means a lot when you are in the middle of a harvest,” he added.