THE HOLIDAY of Holidays Festival in Haifa.  (photo credit: Nir Bloitzky)
THE HOLIDAY of Holidays Festival in Haifa. (photo credit: Nir Bloitzky)
Christmas, Hanukkah: Holiday fest brings feel-good vibes to north Israel

Around 30 years ago someone in Haifa noticed that major events in the calendars of the world’s three main monotheistic religions were about to coincide, more or less.

There is nothing surprising when it comes to the Jewish and Christian winter holidays, Hanukkah and Christmas. Both always fall in December, not quite at the same time but close enough to make something of it, and why not?

Ramadan is a trickier business, given that the Islamic calendar is not calibrated to the solar cycle and, hence, the sacred month does the rounds through the seasons. Currently, it is in the environs of late spring.

Be that as it may, back in 1993 all three were in temporal unison, and the Holiday of Holidays Festival came into being. The idea was to shine a positive and neighborly light on the beauty and riches of the religions, and the common denominators between their adherents. And where better to put on such a multistratified production than a city with Jewish, Muslim and Christian residents who seem, by and large, to be getting on pretty well?

The Holiday of Holidays Festival in Haifa

This year’s festival takes place, as per usual, under the aegis of the Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center, across three long weekends – December 8-10, 15-18, and 22-25. The program takes in an expansive range of arts slots, including the plastic arts, theater, music, comedy and dance, with plenty of guided tours thrown into the mix.

 HAREL SHACHAL and the Ottomans. (credit: ZOHAR RON) HAREL SHACHAL and the Ottomans. (credit: ZOHAR RON)

“There are film festivals, music festivals and all kinds, but there is only one Holiday of Holidays Festival, and that’s in Haifa,” states Ron Asaf with undisguised pride. With 12 years as CEO of Beit Hagefen under his belt, Asaf should know.

“Haifa revels in the fact that we all – Jews and Arabs – live together,” he adds.

“Haifa revels in the fact that we all – Jews and Arabs – live together.”

Ron Asaf

The artistic and entertainment rollout reflects that coexistent feel, with numerous items that largely or completely circumvent linguistic barriers.

Asaf says he and his colleagues have done their damnedest to steer clear of political minefields, if that is at all possible in this country and, particularly, in a mixed city.

“People always try to politicize things and get a political buzz going, but we don’t pay any attention to that stuff. The Holiday of Holidays Festival comes to tell us to put all of that to one side. We say, come and sit together in the street and let’s watch a show together.

“You know how great it is to see Jewish and Arab kids sitting together, in the Family Compound. Every Shabbat there are around five hours of shows, almost all without dialogue, and everyone enjoys themselves. You often don’t know who is who, who is an Arab and who is a Jew.”

Sounds like a panacea for regional and internal violence is in the offing, or, at the very least, a blessed hiatus from the politically stoked tension.

The marketing slogan “Something for everyone” is frequently tagged to this or that cultural event, but in the case of the Haifa festival, it is pretty spot-on.

Consider literally dozens of guided tours around the vicinity of Beit Hagefen, through the neighborhood of Wadi Nismas, which for many years was equal parts Jewish and Arab, and all the way over to downtown Haifa, where you can join in a walk through some of the less salubrious parts of the port city, taking in a polychromic welter of urban graffiti and dilapidated buildings that have a tale or two to tell.

And there’s the PlayCo.Haifa app, which can be downloaded, for a mere NIS 20 per family, and, if the weather isn’t particularly clement or you simply can’t get out and about, you can take an interactive tour around some of hidden gems of the city from the comfort of your own living room. Trivia tidbits about such beguiling topics as “a mythological Haifa sandwich” or the identity of a hardy soul who used to arise before the sun to prepare chow for British soldiers are also on the peripatetic menu along three routes around town.

If you’re aiming to leapfrog language and cultural dividers, music can do the trick, particularly if you have someone like Nazarene guitarist Michael Sajrawy and his trio playing – for free – a seamless mesh of jazz and Arabic music at the host venue. In fact, there is a plethora of musical and music-related shows and workshops on all three weekends, taking in, for example, a contemporary Palestinian dabke dance workshop at Beit Hagefen, which is free but requires advance registration. The slot takes a look at traditional and modern-day dance styles, and feminine and masculine approaches.

CHRISTMAS GETS a cross-cultural look-in when London-based Arab-Israeli opera singer Enas Massalha, accompanied by a pianist, takes festivalgoers on a musical journey through her personal and professional timeline. Most Jewish Israelis or, for that matter, anyone of any religion or nationality would not automatically associate someone of Arab descent with singing opera for a living and gaining global recognition for her efforts.

Then there is the Rim Wassim bilingual show created by Jassan Biromi who, we are told, is the grandson of “legendary musician” Sudki Shukri. Wassim uses his feted forebear’s story to enlighten his audience about contemporary and classical Arabic music, spiced up with some delightful tales of yore.

Poetry and music combine in “About This Makam,” a coproduction between Place for Poetry institute in Haifa and a bunch of Arab and Jewish poets. The evening is described as “a shared dip in the common denominators and differences between the languages and cultures through the unique world of poetry, happening here and now in this place.” That references the Hebrew word for place, “makom,” and the Arabic equivalent, “makam,” although the latter also denotes a rhythmic-musical element.

The makam modal Arabic and Turkish music element also makes an appearance in the concert by Harel Shachal and the Ottomans which embraces an expansive potpourri of jazz, gypsy and Middle Eastern elements.

The festival itinerary is a veritable feast for the eyes, ears and soul, with, for example, more than 60 artist studios opening their doors during the course of the month, while Beit Hagefen unveils an exhibition by the name of “Meshubash/Meshubeshet Meshutaf/Meshutefet” (Broken Shared in both the masculine and feminine forms), created by the Sikkuy-Aufoq – For A Shared and Equal Society group. The show incorporates video works, textiles, folklore and paintings made by female Jewish and Arab artists who “offer an alternative to the political reality through arts activities.” The exhibition also features performance art and other events.

All that walking, talking, dancing, watching and listening can make a gal or guy more than a little hungry, and there will be no shortage of tasty vittles close at hand.

Asaf says he is delighted to help Haifa strut its stuff, and has enjoyed watching the festival blossom during his tenure, spreading the goodwill message and feel-good factor in the process.

“I have people who come here from cities that don’t have a mixed population, like Herzliya, Ashdod or Petah Tikva, and they say ‘Wow! How can this be? It is so good to see it.’ And I tell them this is how life is here in Haifa.”

Then again, the Beit Hagefen boss is under no illusions that an annual festival – incremental, quantitative and artistic growth notwithstanding – is going to settle all the big issues. “There is a lot to fix in Haifa, too, and a lot of progress still to be made, but, ultimately, if you focus on what you share and you have belief, anything is possible.”

Setting existential conundrums to one side, Asaf feels the festival is basically about having a good time.

“You know, if people go home with a smile on their face and say they enjoyed themselves, then all our efforts were worth it.”

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