A Very Jewish Christmas Tree

Current LABA Fellow Liba Vaynberg writes about Christmas trees and assimilation–and other features of growing up Russian and Jewish in the U.S.

Who doesn’t love a Christmas tree? It’s objectively beautiful. Twinkly lights and capitalism and sometimes even a manger… I don’t really know what a manger is, but why not. Manger away. And then there’s Santa Claus? Someone who puts presents under the tree in the middle of the night and then just disappears?

I actually think I would have been a different person if I’d grown up with that idea knocking around my psyche. That fabulous and shiny syzygy of festive meritocracy: if you’re good, you get gifts. Oh, and if you’re bad, you get coal which—let’s be honest—that still sounds pretty useful in a morally-problematic-nonrenewable-resource-way. It’s a win-win situation. 

I’ve never experienced a true Christmas… what I’ve experienced instead is a Soviet New Year, the strange Frankenstein of a holiday that Jews who emigrated from the USSR carry in their bodies as survivors of national anti-Semitism and state-mandated atheism. So my father, sisters and I would stroll into our little suburban cul-de-sac the morning of the 26th and find our tree from the discards. We never bought a tree—we just found one and converted it. 

In Russian the word for “tree” is елочка (pronounced “yelochka”), and because the word is feminine, the tree is frequently characterized as a sweet female growing in the forest (LOL, RUSSIA). There’s a song about it, in fact, that describes how the she-tree grows in the windy snowy woods until finally a forester cuts her down and brings her to visit the children. The composer of the song, of course, was an amateur musician who was an agricultural scientist the rest of the time, and the song survived the Soviet purge of religion because it was clearly just a harmless agrarian jig about trees in winter and collective joy, ok?!

Most years my father placed the tree outside in our backyard—our little cul-de-sac was in California, after all, and I think the gardener in him was happier that way, too. He said (and repeated on the phone this week) and I translate: “Everything goes on the tree. Whatever you can find. She looks good in everything.” We cut papers into snowflakes and tied candies to the branches, and my father would stretch an extension cord over so that she would light up. 

Somehow I knew this wasn’t a Christmas tree. There was no doubt we were Jewish. And there was no doubt, also, that we weren’t “American” in any traditional sense of the word. My sisters and I dreamed of Cheetos and Looney Tunes from the confines of pierogi and Cheburashka. When I asked my father, as most little girls do, if I was secretly a princess, he started laughing: “We’re Jews! Jews aren’t princesses.” I couldn’t argue with him, but how do you explain to your parents that you’re not asking for an answer? You’re asking for a myth. I quickly learned that the Soviet Jews who reared me wouldn’t be able to provide me with one. When I lost my first tooth, I fashioned a little envelope for it and put it under my pillow… the next morning, I marched down to breakfast and explained to them, angrily holding the enveloped tooth, that they were supposed to have replaced it with money. They were curious, astounded, titillated. What amazing things will these Americans think up next! You get paid for losing teeth? Fantastic. What a country. 

They tried. They tried to be Americans, and though much was lost in cultural and literal translation, much was also found… they mistakenly bought us “It’s A Wonderful Life,” thinking it was the Roberto Benigni film “Life Is Beautiful.” They never had actual time to sit and watch with us, so I can’t even begin to explain to you the countless times I watched that movie alone trying to understand it as an elaborate metaphor for the Holocaust. The rather Jew-y depiction of God as a galaxy and Jimmy Stewart’s lanky and somewhat Semitic sweetness didn’t help. Now, my sisters and I still quote that movie to each other and rewatch every year, recalling our many confused and delighted viewings as children.

In the end, it all tracked… my parents couldn’t teach us about Chanukah, so my sisters and I taught them what the state cleansed their grandparents of but was common knowledge in Hebrew school, everything from which side to light the menorah and which blessings to sing, but to this day, neither my mother nor my father can read Hebrew. Their prayers in synagogue are voiceless and godless rituals, strange and beautiful performances. Maybe they just meditate on their day. Maybe they just wonder about the universe. Maybe they just hope good things would happen to good people. I don’t know. I’m also questioning even though I can read the Aramaic.

They provided me with other myths. They read to us… stories about sly foxes and cunning witches and competitive siblings. Pushkin and Tchaikovsky straight from the source, but we also got Jules Verne and Shakespeare in translation. We weren’t princesses, we were resourceful and squeaky wheels. We dressed up for movies in velvet dresses, we played piano, and we drank tea with wafers for hours. As we got older, my parents bought us Disney movies to make sure we knew about American fairy tales; I think that was their simple nod to values outside their own, to the world into which they immigrated but barely assimilated. And perhaps the greater lesson was that culture is the candy wrapper around a story everybody knows. And the resulting value systems were quiet and complex and a little existentially libertarian (oy). If you want money under your pillow, you can put it there. If you want a tree, you can go outside and get one. If you want meaning, you can make it.