King of the Christmas Jews
There was this weird tradition growing up I still recall with something reminiscent of Nick Carraway toward the end of Gatsby, a “That’s my middle-west” type of fondness: my friends—none of whom I talk to today, probably for this very reason—always asked me, “Hey Jason, what are your people going to do on Christmas?” By my people, they meant the Jews.
They wanted to know what me and my family would be doing while they were opening presents, drinking eggnog, singing “Fa-la-la-la-la,” or whatever the hell else people do on December 25th. Of course, they weren’t looking to hear me tell them, “I think we’re going to get Chinese and see a movie,” or my usual answer, “I don’t know.” It was rhetorical; they didn’t want to know if we’d be “making matzoh” or “stealing babies.” They wanted to ask me what I’d be doing because, as the only Jew, I was an easy target, and kids can be assholes.
Then there would always be my one friend who every single year would guess, “They’re probably going to make more money,” pretty much signaling an end to the teasing, like a record scratching in the middle of some party, bringing everything to a halt when everybody would laugh and agree that my family was going to spend the birthday of their Lord and Savior figuring out how to make more money, because, I guess, that’s what some people think Jews do.
A few years later, much to my astonishment, I found out that they were right, because for five years I made way more money on Christmas than any day on the calendar specifically because I’m Jewish. That’s funny to me because, contrary to the stereotype, I’m actually awful at making money. I’m a writer; I’ve never been good at saving, never been good at negotiating. I have come to accept the catch-22 that I live in a city that’s too expensive for me, yet I’m virtually unemployable anywhere else. I have very few talents, don’t know any trades, and have hardly any experience doing anything that anybody sane would hire me for. I don’t have much to offer potential employers, save for the fact that I’m Jewish and can work on Christmas. No matter how bad things get, I’ll always have that.
There was the coffee shop in the East Village, where, despite the fact that I actually had plans to go to what my friends called an “orphan Christmas party,” my boss scheduled me in to work because, in his words, “Jews don’t care.” And no, I didn’t totally care, but would have been nice of him to ask. He said nobody would come in anyway. He said his boss, the store’s owner, was also a Jew. He wanted to stay open.
So it was up to me to keep things going smoothly and deal with the “handful of customers” I was told would come in. That became a line out the door about fifteen minutes after I started and didn’t let up until I decided to turn off the Phil Spector Christmas album that was on repea, and blast an album by the crust punk band His Hero is Gone to let people know it was time for them to go somewhere else.
When I finally kicked the last straggler out, I popped open a beer, enjoyed the holiday silence for a moment, and dumped my tip jar, only to find that money kept falling out, dollar bill after dollar bill, a few fives, even a twenty. The first thing I thought was it was enough money for me to throw on a bed and roll around in like Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal. Then I counted it, and found I had made over $300 dollars. On a normal day, at best, I made maybe $150 in tips during a shift that I had to split with the people I was working with. But that night I made — no, I earned — $300 bucks all on my own. If I believed in such things, I would have thought this was a Christmas miracle.
The next year I worked on Christmas at a bakery that was really famous in Brooklyn for a few years, so the owners thought they could open up a shop in the city. But nobody ever bought anything, so it was a lot of the same thing: the place was never busy, save for Christmas Eve, where I walked away with close to $200 dollars, a lot of it thanks to the bartenders who were also working that night. The year after that, it was the restaurant in SoHo where I was one of three servers working a packed house, including my table, with an actress who was more famous in the tabloids than she was with the critics.
When she had too much to drink and started throwing up violently all over the table before the appetizers were delivered, one of her handlers tossed five Ben Franklins inches from the puke and escorted her out, telling me, “She was never here. Merry Christmas.” The bill was about $50 dollars for drinks and a few small starter plates, meaning I netted a $450 tip to add to the other $200 I made. I made rent in one night while everybody else roasted chestnuts on an open fire. Then I went home to an empty apartment, drank a lot of whiskey, and watched Spies Like Us. But I think what’s most important is that I was starting to feel better about being a Jew on Christmas.
I’ve always liked Christmas, but I also felt like a poor Dickensian child looking into a brightly lit wonderful toy store that I can’t step foot into because my clothes are covered in soot and I don’t have a penny to my name. I’ve never had fruitcake, but I’d love to try it someday, and I’ve never been caroling, although I do really enjoy watching White Christmas. What I’m trying to say is that I’m a fan of the holiday, but because I’m a Jew, I’ve always felt left out, and maybe a little spiteful. I’d watch the scene in Home Alone where Macaulay Culkin’s character goes into the church to hear the choir sing, and think to myself, “I wish I could do that without feeling like the walls would start caving in on me.”
Sure, I’ve had my share of Chinese food while people were opening presents, and that’s a really nice tradition, but I always felt phony when December 25th rolled around. Working, having some sort of purpose, changed that.
The last year of my Christmas money making spree, I DJ’ed a Christmas Eve party that went from 7:00 – 10:00 and made $500, and I realized as I walked home down the quiet West Village streets that I’d found my Christmas calling: to make money. Much like the way some observant Jews employ the services of a “Shabbos goy” (a gentile person who is given a stipend to do small, necessary, but taboo chores on the Sabbath, like turn on light switches or tear sheets of toilet paper for when the Jews have to go to the bathroom after eating too much chulent) I was the Christmas Jew. It ended up helping me feel a little bit better about the one day of the year when I always felt alone.
Jason Diamond is the associate editor at the Men’s Journal’s website, the former literary editor at Flavorwire, the founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and has had his work published by the New York Times, The Paris Review, Tablet, the New Republic, Vulture, Bookforum, and many other places. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, two cats, and a dog named Max.