On Christmas, and Confusion

Passing. There’s no time like the holidays for it. Passing plates. Passing on obligations and invitations. Passing by the Salvation Army jingles and tourists gawking at Macy’s holiday window displays. And passing by all the trees, wrapped up and dreaming of living rooms.

Suddenly, nothing is secular, so everything is secular. I usually don’t listen to music through headphones—music was made for orchestras and turntables and studios and theaters and speakers. But in December, I do. It’s cold, it’s lonely, and there’s a whole catalogue of carols written to address the temperature and the accompanying existential squall. And all the best songs were written by Jews, of course. So, I put in my headphones and join my ancestors and pass.

When I was in fifth grade, I wrote a report about Irving Berlin. I chose him randomly—I browsed the biography shelves after my immigrant parents, who had waited to get the internet until it became necessary, dropped me off at the library. I remember opening a book and seeing a menorah on the first page and reading something about his Russian roots. Perfect, I thought. He’s just like my dad, this will be easy. White Christmas meant nothing to me at the time—I didn’t see it until this year and only because I’ve been consumed by religious inversions recently. 

Hanukkah wouldn’t exist without Christmas. It’s been plucked out of scriptural obscurity and magnified to give Jews something to do. Or rather, something to buy, should we not succumb to the cheerful Christmas monolith. I don’t mean to deride the monolith—I mean to define it. I mean to trace its edges and describe its shape in a way that only certain kinds of outsiders can. Jews occupy a particular intersectional niche: we are frequently able to pass and comment both from the inside and the outside on what we see.

And I see the friction in this cultural lattice everywhere now because it is, in fact, everywhere–even among my friends. Andy’s Jewish and wondering why his wife wants to put an angel on top of their tree, Rebecca’s interfaith parents fought to the bitter end about the holidays, and when Dana accidentally bought her daughter a onesie that said “Baby’s First Christmas,” her mother flipped out. Everything is relative; everything exists in relation to the evergreen and the cross. Everything is outside or inside something else. And I cling to the fringes anyway, not only as a Jew but also as a woman and as an artist. 

The word “artist” isn’t fashionable anymore, but it’s the one that I think applies. When I identify myself as an “artist” on dates, I feel either pathetic or pretentious. Sometimes both. It’s genuinely terrifying to watch the subsequent mental arithmetic as the guy weighs his attraction to me against his calculations of my earning potential or artistic viability. On one first date, a novelist asked me whether or not I was successful. On another, a man who created an alternative toothbrush asked me how could my pilot be any good if it’s the first pilot I wrote. On yet another, a composer I ended up dating for a while didn’t ask me any questions at all, actually. In retrospect, of course, I can see the red flag waving at me, though at the time I was probably just relieved not to have to answer honestly: who knows?

And maybe that question is the point. Or so I ask myself as I pull out tarot cards my friend Leslie gave me for Christmas and ascribe meaning to the words I memorize and repeat on stage? There’s no answer at the end of December for me. Or for Jews. No exquisitely wrapped solution under a tree. Besides, even if I were of that persuasion, I can’t imagine keeping a secret for that long! I mean, what if the gift recipient gets hit by a car? I want you to have the warm socks and bell hooks book I got you now. Who knows who you’ll be tomorrow? And who I’ll be?

Tomorrow I might wake up afraid. Tonight I’m bold. And it’s easy to write about that unknowable plane of existence (especially around Christmas, especially around a season of hate crimes) that artists navigate, skeptics embody, Jews embrace, and I find impossible to distill on dates, but most of the time it’s hard to live with. Or just confusing. How do I explain something I can barely wrap my soul around? A rabbi I admire once said the conversion process to Judaism is only truly complete when the new Jew by choice starts to question the faith… Well, that’s a slippery road, isn’t it?.

I can’t speak for every Jew, but I can say that I pass, at least professionally: when I act, I frequently play non-Jews. I listen to Bing Crosby croon and wonder how Irving Berlin so clearly managed to sketch the festive American snow globe from the outside. When I’m dating, I have to remind myself to simply identify as an artist without a self-deprecating shuffle. Also, when I inevitably call attention to my Jewishness, the quips about my heritage are somehow always seductive: funny to non-Jews, familiar to Jews. So am I passing, or am I proud? 

The answer, or a non-answer, may be found in our own scriptures of caveats and questions. Many Jews will admit that belief in God isn’t required to be Jewish. The culture goes one step further and eschews any visual representations of God at all—I’ve always loved this, this space left for ambiguity. God is for you to imagine and not for you to delineate. God is a song about something beautiful that helps you stay warm on a long walk home. Jews, like artists and like so many people in flux or in doubt, self-identify and forge their own understanding of the divine or lack thereof, so any definition or order inherently diminishes and reduces the sincere complexity and inherent questioning of true Jewry. There’s a lot of shuffling and wondering… what’s mine? What isn’t? Which traditions actually belong to me? What do I call myself? What makes me an artist? Or a Jew? The best answer is a question: who knows?

Liba Vaynberg is a first-generation American writer and actor. She recurs on New Amsterdam and will be seen in The Soap Myth opp. Ed Asner on PBS All Arts. Currently working on The Gett, a commission for Rattlestick. She is bilingual, so that’s not why her parents still don’t get what she does. Follow her on Twitter.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.