Blue and white Christmas

Israeli Jews are being charmed by the glitter of the holiday.

Israeli Jews celebrating Christmas  (photo credit: AVI HOFFMANN)
Israeli Jews celebrating Christmas
(photo credit: AVI HOFFMANN)
“SANTA BABY, just slip a sable under the tree for me / Been an awful good girl / Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight / Think of all the fun I’ve missed / Think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed / Next year I could be just as good / If you check off my Christmas list,” Rebecca Sykes, 44, cooed seductively.
Sykes was singing the sultry Christmas song to the approval of a standing-room only crowd of mostly Jewish, English-speaking immigrants at the downtown Jerusalem restaurant Blue Hall, who had come the day before Christmas Eve to hear her and singing partner Evan Kent, 56, perform Christmas holiday songs – written by Jewish guys.
Backed up by the Israeli-born Boaz Dorot Trio, and passing out peppermint candy canes, they were giving the crowd – which sang along to many of the well-known songs – what they had come for: a blast from the past, a bit of nostalgia of childhood winters filled with Christmas songs and twinkling lights.
“This is a little bit of nostalgia,” Sykes, who is originally from Missouri and who used to sing Christmas songs in school choirs and college jazz ensembles, tells The Jerusalem Report. “But it is also another way we can encounter a different expression of faith in a way that is pretty easy to connect to. The funniest part was introducing our Israeli- born trio to the music, which they had never heard before.”
Smiles even crept onto the faces of the only table of native Israelis who happened to stumble into the club for a birthday celebration and found themselves in the middle of a Christmas revelry.
“It’s very nice, we like the atmosphere of Christmas and all the holiday decorations,” says Eliezer Shamah, 56. Some in the group had just returned from Madrid where they had gone specifically to see all the Christmas decorations. “Politically we are right-wing but that doesn’t mean we can’t respect other religions.”
“This is a lot of good stuff. We are celebrating the Jewish contribution to American culture and civilization,” pipes in David Gleicher, 61, from the US, a crocheted kippa perched on his head.
Following the renditions of “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, Belgian visitor Yort Jansen, 24 – perhaps the only non-Jew in the audience – sat resplendent in a green Christmas sweater chatting with his Israeli-American friends.
Truth be told, he said, until he came to Israel he hadn’t even realized that Christmas was a Christian holiday. “In Belgium, we all celebrate Christmas, but I think it is lovely to hear this music here with my Jewish friends,” he says.
While Jews abroad feel a need to acknowledge their Jewish identity over the winter holidays amid the barrage of all that is Christmas, in Israel not only immigrants but Sabras, as well, are being charmed by the glitter of the holiday, due in part to the wide exposure on the Internet and television, but also because of the large population of foreign workers in their midst who celebrate the holiday.
“There is a fascination with Christmas because this is the only thing we know about Christianity and the tree and the decorations are very beautiful. It is something foreign, from other countries, something we want to experience on our next vacation,” Hana Bendcowsky, program director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations (JCJC) tells The Report. “We do see more [symbols] of Christmas, we have more migrant workers who are celebrating.”
In addition, she says, the holiday of Novy God, the New Year celebration of immigrants from the FSU, which uses similar symbols, is also slowly creeping into the Israeli winter holiday repertoire.
This year, a group of young Israelis who either immigrated from the FSU as young children or were born here to FSU immigrant parents, have started an “Israeli Novy God” campaign to introduce their colorful holiday. On their website and Facebook page, they have invited Russian families to open their homes to Israelis who wish to experience this holiday, which they say is one of family, food and close friends, and reach out to native born Hebrew-speaking Israelis to join them in the celebrations.
“We felt there was a lot of stigma attached to the holiday, with Israelis saying it was a Christian holiday, and that we weren’t Jewish enough,” Alex Rif, 29, who began the campaign together with Beri Rozenberg, explains to The Report.
After years of trying to avoid her Russian roots, Rif says she finally began to feel confident enough in her Israeliness to be able to connect with the Russian traditions her parents brought to Israel with them. The response to their campaign has been better than expected, with some 100 requests to be hosted on the holiday and hundreds more of private hostings already noted between friends, she says.
“NOVY GOD was the one holiday that was not a state holiday. It was something magical and intimate – a place for home and family, a bit free and personal. It ends the secular year,” she says. “We want society to accept us with our Russianness. It is something that is not spoken about here and we think this is a good opportunity to introduce Israelis to our history and traditions. The response has been amazing.
“I think Israel is becoming more open to its ethnic communities and their cultures, be they Yemenite or Russian,” says Rif. “But it is not an easy path. Some still think that if you stick with your culture you won’t become Israeli. We say that Israel has a place for this multiculturalism and will learn and grow from it.”
But while noting that Christmas may make Israelis feel cosmopolitan and part of Western culture, Bendcowsky says, the only part of Christianity taught in schools is how it relates to Jewish history via the Inquisition, expulsion, pogroms and Holocaust. So while the glittery trappings of the holiday may attract Israelis on one level, a survey by the JCJC several years ago showed that younger Israelis are more likely to be anti-Christian than their parents, who may have been exposed to Christians in their country of origin or through work.
“Just because people are interested in Christmas does not mean they don’t harbor prejudiced ideas about Christianity. Like, ‘How can they be so stupid to believe in the Virgin Mary?’” she says. “I don’t think people would feel comfortable with a Christmas tree in a shopping mall.”
Nevertheless, on Christmas Eve, the entrance to the West Jerusalem YMCA was decked out in colorful lights against the night sky and a Christmas tree sparkling with ornaments stood festively in the lobby. Guests at the YMCA’s popular restaurant stopping to take pictures in front of the tree included Jewish Israelis, as well as international visitors.
Nearby, the Y’s auditorium was packed with mainly Jewish Israelis who had come to listen to a concert of Christmas music.
A group of secular humanistic rabbinical students from the center of the country, who had come to experience Christmas in Jerusalem, followed their guide through the building to hear about Christmas traditions and were soon followed by a smaller group of Jewish teen nature scouts led by their scout leader, who took a quick glimpse at the tree as they rushed to make the Christmas Mass at the nearby Italian consulate.
While living in a country with a Jewish majority, Israelis have some inkling about the Muslim Arabs living among them, but with Christians being a tiny minority in Israel, there is very little opportunity to come in contact with their traditions, notes Harel Guttel, 15, of Jerusalem.
The scene was a far cry from the one a few weeks earlier when a handful of members of the extreme right-wing group, Lahava, led by Bentzi Gopstein, demonstrated against a Christmas bazaar held at the YMCA that included games for children, calling it a “murder of Jewish souls.” They held signs demanding that the “impure ones” leave the country. In an op-ed piece in a religious newspaper, Gopstein later called Christians “blood-sucking vampires.”
From the West Jerusalem restaurant displaying a Christmas/New Year tree and Jewish children cajoling their parents to let them put up decorations at Christmas time, to groups like Lahava, Jewish Israelis are extremely divided when it comes to Christmas, Father David Neuhaus, Patriarchal Vicar for the Hebrew Speaking Communities, points out to The Report.
“Israeli society is becoming more and more divided on every single issue, including this issue,” he says. “Some people are terrified of a kind of obscuring of the boundaries and we have Rabbi Gopstein saying terrible things, which elicits a contrary reaction.
We had a number of open-minded rabbis and Israeli Jews coming to mass at our parishes.”
Then there are others, who are happy to embrace the outward trappings of the holidays with the tree and the decorations because they are pretty, but are not much interested in learning about the significance of the holiday, he says.
“What interests us more are the people who are open to learning about the other without losing their own identity,” he says.
“In an atmosphere of fear, a lot of power is given to marginal groups.”
In public Israeli life, Christmas has also become a part of the landscape. The Jerusalem municipality traditionally distributes free Christmas trees. In Haifa, a Christmas tree graces a main thoroughfare along with a hanukkia and as they have done for the past 22 years, Jewish, Christian and Muslim residents and visitors enjoy the Holiday of Holidays festival marking the three winter holidays of the different faiths. Stores sell Christmas paraphernalia and people wish each other Happy Holidays.
“We all feel it,” says Haifa resident Yair Lipshitz, 64, who was invited to Christmas dinner by friends and regularly attends Christmas concerts.
In Tel Aviv, Mayor Ron Huldai helped light a Christmas tree in Jaffa, which also has a mixed population. Up in the northern Arab city of Nazareth, the director of the city’s office of the Ministry of Tourism Ronny Eid says that while external tourism is down, the city’s hotels were booked for the Christmas weekend by Jewish Israelis wanting to experience the Christmas atmosphere in the city were Jesus lived most of his life. In fact, he says, he had wanted to make reservations for friends over the holiday, but, there was no room in the inns.
“ISRAELIS ARE starting to discover Nazareth more and more,” he says. “There is a special atmosphere in Nazareth. Everyone, Jews, Christians and Muslims, come to celebrate. People don’t feel the tension. We are far from all the conflict.”
At first, he was surprised by the number of Israeli Jews who have been eager to attend the Christmas Eve Mass, he says adding that “they want to come into contact with the local population.”
Rabbi Sivan Maas, 57, who was heading the group of secular humanistic rabbinical students for the evening at the Jerusalem YMCA, tells The Report that she feels there is increasing interest in and acceptance of seeing the symbols of Christmas in public spaces. With their wide exposure now to Christmas on the Internet and media, Israelis like the feeling of being cosmopolitan and fashionable, she says.
“We are all more attuned with the Western world. It is more the fun of Christmas, not so much the message,” she says. “And the people who immigrated from the FSU have been here long enough and have started to feel confident in their own roots with Novy God. It’s all connected, the legitimization given to all these holidays.”
Other ethnic holidays that have taken on a more national awareness in Israeli society include the Ethiopian Sigd and the Moroccan Mimouna, which has become widely popular following Passover with politicians and public figures jostling to be seen attending the largest and best celebrations.
Similarly, some American immigrants also still maintain the Thanksgiving tradition, so there is awareness among certain Israeli circles of that holiday, as well as of Halloween largely because of media exposure.
“I think Christmas is a very beautiful holiday and I think that, as a country, we don’t give enough room for the holidays of the other traditions that live here,” says Yuval Moran, 21, who had accompanied her mother on the Maas’s tour. From the almost completely Jewish city of Kfar Saba, she didn’t even know when Christmas was until two years ago.
In their Jerusalem living room, Ella and Emily Bolton-Laor adjust the lights on their small Christmas tree. It is the second year Ella, 15, has spearheaded the Christmas decorating, including in her bedroom.
A classmate is the daughter of a foreign worker from the Philippines and celebrates Christmas, so together with another friend, they decided to also put up decorations.
Bolton-Laor’s father took her to the Old City to buy Christamas ornaments.
“I like the way it looks with all the lights and smells, and it is my mom’s birthday.
It’s wintertime,” she said. It is also a way to connect with her mother’s American roots, she said, just like celebrating Thanksgiving.
It took a little getting used to the decorations, admits her mother Karine Bolton- Laor, 46, who is originally from Michigan.
“One reason I moved to Israel was for my children to be able to live a Jewish life without being religious,” she says. “But I understand their interest in Christmas. It is very attractive and it’s sparkly and there are presents involved, though we have never bought presents for Christmas. We are not celebrating the actual holiday.”
Emily, 11, says she first started getting interested in Christmas from YouTube where families posted their Christmas videos. “I wanted to see what kids really get for Christmas.
It looked like kind of fun,” she says.
Her interest led her to do a school project on the significance of Christmas two years ago.
“I thought it was an American holiday and I didn’t know who Jesus was. I thought he might be someone important so I started to look him up.”
For Tamar Herman, 63, who had come from the coastal town of Netanya to Jerusalem over the Christmas weekend to see her son and to experience a Christmas atmosphere, being at the YMCA Christmas concert was also about making a statement against the increasing extremism she senses.
“I came here especially to hear the bells at the end of the concert,” she said. “The whole world is becoming more fanatical and I hope that in my own little way, I am doing something to counter that.”