Hagim Mibifnim: A cross religion holiday festival for everyone to enjoy

The proximity of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays was not lost on Nir Cohen, Tali Yissa and Inbal Halperin-Gottesman when they set up the initial event in 2016.

A Muslim family hosts Jewish Israelis at the traditional Iftar evening meal during Ramadan. (photo credit: OPEN HOLIDAYS)
A Muslim family hosts Jewish Israelis at the traditional Iftar evening meal during Ramadan.
(photo credit: OPEN HOLIDAYS)
This is a festive time of the year. Hanukkah is upon us – candles, doughnuts and all. Many of us who hail from Christian-based countries will know that Christmas is not far off, either, and this year, the official birth date of Muhammad, the Mawlid, took place just a couple of weeks ago – all of which adds up to neat temporal grounds for a monotheistic religious concurrence in the shape of Open Holidays.
The proximity of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim holidays was not lost on Nir Cohen, Tali Yissa and Inbal Halperin-Gottesman when they set up the initial event in 2016. All had also previous experience of cross-community endeavor, although Halperin-Gottesman says Open Holidays was the product of serendipity.
“It was born two years ago, right before the first holiday season following a couple of coincidental conversations I had – although, of course, nothing really happens by chance,” she notes. “I took part in a program called Lowering the Walls, in Jerusalem, [run by Shatil], and I met Tali Yissa there, a girl with Ethiopian roots who invited me to take part in a Sigd festival tour the next day.”
Sigd, a religious holiday of the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewish) community, is celebrated annually on 29 Kislev, during Hanukkah.
Halperin-Gottesman’s work schedule on the morrow precluded participation in the tour, but a chat she had with a friend named Nir Cohen provided the touch paper for Open Holidays. “I said to him, ‘Why doesn’t anyone know about all these special holidays? Why do they always slip under the radar?’” Cohen was just the person to pose that to. “Nir had just come back from a year of shlihut in London, where multiculturalism is the thing.”
The two didn’t waste any time. In truth, they had none to waste.
“We decided to join forces and get a festival going,” Halperin-Gottesman recalls. “We had less than a month. It started on the Sigd, and we already had the festival on Hanukkah. Considering, that year, the Sigd was on November 30 and Hanukkah started on December 24 – bang on time for Christmas, too – that left them barely three weeks to manage all the logistics: administrative, scheduling, fund-raising, etc. Anyone who has ever tried to get a cultural project off the ground in this country will be mightily impressed with that.
“We [together with Yissa] put a lot into it,” says Halperin-Gottesman, which amounts to understatement in the extreme. “We all had full-time jobs and we’d work on this until 10 o’clock every night.” Naturally, goodwill isn’t quite sufficient to pull off something like that, and they received financial backing from the San Diego-based Leichtag Foundation. The nonprofit still supports the festival, along with the Jerusalem Foundation, and the Tarbus haredi cultural body is also in the Open Holidays mix.
The threesome started smallish, but the venture was success from the get-go.
“We had 11 events in the first year and they were all full,” says Halperin-Gottesman. “The whole festival was spread out over two weeks and we had en event almost evening.” This year there are over 30 slots in the program.
The festival’s Hebrew title – Hagim Mibifnim – translates directly as “Holidays from Inside,” which implies a cozy ambiance. That is a central feature of most of the items in the lineup. “We now have three categories of events,” continues Halperin-Gottesman, “including home hosting, which is the core of the festival. You have people meeting hosts, and each other, for one evening.” The thinking behind that, which is much along the lines of the Lowering Walls ethos, is unfamiliarity can breed contempt, and familiarity can generate a sense of closeness and can break down barriers between people of different religious stripes and ethnic backgrounds, such as Arabs and Jews, and secular and haredi Jews.
Sounds logical enough.
“The whole idea behind this is that the fear that we feel exists between people comes from simply not knowing the others. We believe that meeting and getting to know people in person makes it possible to lower the walls of fear, and draw closer to each other, and this time of year, with the religious holidays, is perfect for that.”
Mind you, Halperin-Gottesman did have a prototype, of sorts, to work from. The Holiday of Holidays event, which has been running in Haifa for 25 years, runs on similar lines, at least in terms in rapprochement intent. Even so, there were so fundamental nuances to be taken into account.
“We thought, ‘Why don’t we have something like the Holiday of Holidays in Jerusalem?’ We took a look at Jerusalem, and we realized that Jerusalem has complexities you don’t have in Haifa. That’s mainly in the east of the city, but you also have that in the haredi sector.”
All that, and more, was incorporated into the program machinations. This year, for example, a prestigious haredi family will welcome people into their home for a Hanukkah lighting ceremony, and a group of Arab students will be introduced to the wonders of the Jewish festival. “Last year, some Arab students ate doughnuts for the first time,” Halperin-Gottesman chuckles. I remarked, tongue firmly planted in cheek, that, considering the calorie and sugar intake, I wasn’t sure if that was a good idea, but I got the positive sensorial point.
There are also some less intimate items in the festival program.
“There are tours that are intimate but not personal like with the events where people host you in their home.” One of the alfresco activities will leave the participants with a visual memento to take with, in addition to the experiential aspect.
“We will have a tour with people taking photographs with cameras and cell phones of hanukkiot in Mea She’arim.” The idea is to document as much of the action as possible. “They will take pictures of the whole of the candle lighting ceremonies, in the area around Geula and Mea She’arim” (to register – eventbuzz.co.il/shearim).
The religious holiday purview spreads far and wide.
“We have another guided tour with an amazing guide called Esther Saad, based on the theme of the Armenian Christmas. We will go to the Armenian Quarter of the Old City, meet an Armenian priest, and witness their ceremony,” says Halperin-Gottesman. “It is all so fascinating.”
The latter tour takes place on January 6. There is also a rare opportunity to learn about the local Karaite community, with a visit planned for this morning to their sector of the Old City. (To register – https://goo.gl/Qv3fJT.)
There are also a couple of events at the YMCA building on King David Street, including a guided tour of the beautifully designed multicultural facility and a Christmas concert, featuring a slew of ensembles, including the Jerusalem YMCA Youth Chorus conducted by Micah Hendler, and internationally renowned pianist, conductor and composer Nizar Elkathar with the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir. There will also be some higher-energy sonic fare on offer, albeit of a very different nature, at Burstein’s krechme, a basement musical get together in Romema (to register – eventbuzz.co.il/burstein).
No prior knowledge of any of the religions and rituals involved is required.
“The actual experience of getting to know someone you haven’t met before, with the charisma of the religious holidays, that makes it possible for things to happen,” Halperin-Gottesman enthuses.
“It enables people to come with an open heart and to host with an open heart. There’s no politics in this. We manage to get away from that. For us that is the essence. A person’s political opinion isn’t important. What is important is that we all live together in the same region. At the end of the day we want to get along and most people want that.”
Besides clearly being a capable lot, Cohen, Yissa and Halperin-Gottesman are also highly ambitious, with plans to spread the cohesive word far and wide – very far and wide.
“We are devising a business model for this. We are thinking of duplicating this in London and New York. They are multicultural cities and they have the perfect range of cultures and people. As it says in Isaiah: “The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
For more information about all the Open Holidays events, fees and dates: www.facebook.com/openHolidayJLM/ and www.openholidays.co.il/events/