Celebrating together and making merry at the YMCA

The Christian seasonal spirit will be enhanced by actors in Santa Claus suits who will patrol the festival site and hand out presents.

Santa Claus will greet Jerusalem’s children (photo credit: EYAL WEISS)
Santa Claus will greet Jerusalem’s children
(photo credit: EYAL WEISS)
The YMCA is a standout Jerusalem feature whichever way you look at it. One can’t take a peek at the multifarious architectural design, with its soaring tower and elegant domes and arches, without getting a sense of yesteryear and of the rich cultural baggage this country has absorbed – and continues to absorb – over the centuries and millennia. The building is an impressive edifice that offers a wealth of external and internal aesthetics, with its sumptuous interior decorating and architectural features echoing the outside grandeur.
The YMCA, which was designed by American architect Arthur Loomis Harmon – the very same person who was responsible for putting up the Empire State Building, then the tallest structure in the world – opened for business in 1933.
The opening ceremony was attended by British Gen. Edmund Allenby, and a quote from the speech he made on the occasion stands proudly at the front of the YMCA site, “Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity be fostered and developed.”
It is a fine sentiment that, sadly, has not exactly stood the test of time, but the staff are doing their best to keep the Allenby embers glowing. To that end, the YMCA has dedicated December as the Jerusalem Month of Holidays. The idea is to make the last few weeks of the Gregorian calendar year a time when the various cultures and, primarily, members of the three principal monotheistic religions come together, to celebrate each other’s holidays and to bask in the glow of seasonal good cheer.
December, of course, is when Jews and Christians the world over mark Hanukka and Christmas. The Muslim calendar, meanwhile, presents more challenging temporal logistics as, despite being based on the lunar cycle of 354 days, unlike the Hebrew calendar it does not incorporate adjustment mechanisms. Hence, the Muslim holidays and other important days move through the seasons. This year, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad will be marked here on December 12, which neatly completes a cross-religion triad of events.
The main slot in the program lined up by the YMCA’s events and programs department is the Christmas market, which will take place over the weekend of December 18-20. The 45-meter tower will be illuminated by thousands of colored lights, and the lofty cypress tree at the front will be festooned with giant decorations.
Dozens of stalls will be dotted around the interior of the building – safe from the wintry elements – selling original and handmade Christmas items made by artisans from east Jerusalem. Of course, there will be plenty of edibles – savory and sweet – on sale too.
The Christian seasonal spirit will be enhanced by actors in Santa Claus suits who will patrol the festival site and hand out presents. And, just in case Bing Crosby’s dream of a white Christmas does not come true in the natural way, the meteorological shortcomings will be compensated for by snow makers. And there will be plenty of hands-on activities for kids too, with a variety of workshops, and the younger crowd will be kept suitably entertained with some traditional pantomime fare. Meanwhile, the grownups can enjoy a bell-ringing concert, and there will be a world music flute slot.
Muhammad’s birthday will be noted by the sale of the traditional Mushabak cakes.
Osnat Yehuda, manager of the events and programs department, says she is very excited about the festival and hopes it will help to inject some positive vibes, for young and old alike.
“We want to do something to alleviate the heavy atmosphere in Jerusalem and Israel right now,” she says, adding that she wants to get as many people as possible, from all religions on board. “We invited kids and adults to come and decorate the Christmas tree.
That, for me, sends out a message – that everyone is welcome. We want to share Hanukka with Christians and Muslims, and Christmas and the prophet’s birthday too. Especially at this time, we want to make it possible for us all to be together.”
That sounds all nice and cozy, but in some quarters such enterprise is not looked upon with undisguised glee.
“I got a lot of ‘likes’ when I put the event up on Facebook, but I also got a message saying that what we are doing is missionary work,” says Yehuda. “I just told the man that we are not just inviting everyone, including Jewish kids, to celebrate Christmas we are also inviting Muslim and other kids, and their parents, to celebrate Hanukka. It is about sharing and being together.”
YMCA general manager Amos Gil is naturally totally on board the multidenominational, all-inclusive ethos.
“This year we have defined out goals more sharply and we are helping to leverage the city’s multiculturalism, and are striving to enhance interreligious relations, in particular between the residents of Jerusalem, and between all people living in Israel in general. The Jerusalem Month of Holidays is a major means of achieving this.”
Yehuda and Gil are also keen attract as many sectors of the public to the YMCA, and to the current festivities, as possible. To that end the delightfully appointed concert hall will host a show by pop artist Idan Rafael Haviv on December 11 (12:30 p.m.), and the first urban triathlon will take place on January 1 at 8 p.m. Passersby, as well as those inside the building and the YMCA compound, will be able to revel in the sonorous efforts of Prof. Gaby Shefler who will “moonlight” from his daytime job as a psychology lecturer at the Hebrew University, to work his magic with the large bells at the top of the YMCA tower, to play some popular Hanukka tunes.
“We want to send a clear message that we are here, that the three religions can live together harmoniously and that this month we want to show the world that, even in divided Jerusalem, we can celebrate each other’s holidays and simply have fun together,” says Yehuda.
Amen to that.
For more information: (02) 569-2670 and http://ymca.org.il/