Being different in Haifa

The Holiday of Holidays festival fills December with a dynamic roster of events and activities.

The sweets market in wadi Nisnas (photo credit: ZVI ROGER)
The sweets market in wadi Nisnas
(photo credit: ZVI ROGER)
Religious holidays serve all sorts of ends for people of various degrees of observance and of different ethnic and social stripes.
For the past two-plus decades, the Holiday of Holidays festival has been feeding off the religious and cultural sensibilities of the country’s Jewish, Muslim and Christian sectors and presenting the harmonious cultural and social side of life in the host city, Haifa, to good effect.
The festival, which was initiated and is run by the Beit Hagefen Arab Jewish Cultural Center, was originally timed to coincide with the chronological confluence of Hanukka, Christmas and Ramadan.
However, as the Muslim calendar does not have the seasonal adjustment mechanism of the Hebrew calendar, Ramadan currently takes place quite a long way off. But the festival sentiment remains unchanged.
“Having the holidays of the three religions around the same time of year was the original concept for the festival,” says artistic director Hila Goshen, “and you can’t miss all the signs of Hanukka and Christmas around Haifa at this time of year. But the religious holidays are no longer the main point behind the festival.”
The program of this year’s festival, which kicked off yesterday, takes in a wide range of events and activities that will predominantly take place on weekends throughout this month, with several events on Thursdays.
The inter-community enterprise was originally based in the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood of Haifa which, back in the day, was a mixed Jewish-Arab area. Over the years the Jewish residents moved out, and today the festival events also take place in the German Colony, but Wadi Nisnas remains a festival focal point.
“There are very few Jews living in Wadi Nisnas now, and it has an Arab orientation,” says Goshen.
“There are parts of Haifa that are more mixed, but Wadi Nisnas is our home patch. Beit Hagefen is located right next to the neighborhood, and the festival takes place in the neighborhood – for better or worse – and you could say that Wadi Nisnas is the star of the festival.”
Goshen and her colleagues from Beit Hagefen have lined up an eclectic constellation of items over the month. There are dozens of enticing cultural offerings to be had between now and December 27, such as art exhibitions, movies, concerts, theater, dance, circus, acrobatics, nostalgia trips and an antiques fair and conferences, not to mention a wide array of tasty food items based on local Mediterranean cuisine.
The Beit Hagefen backyard events feature all kinds of al fresco fare in Wadi Nisnas, such as outdoor concerts, theater, an artists’ fair and children’s activities, as well as a jolly Christmas parade with Santa Claus and the Scouts.
Meanwhile, the host venue will put on the national children’s exhibition at the Clore Library, and Santa’s House in Wadi Nisnas will welcome junior patrons with open arms and a hearty “Ho, ho, ho.”
Betwixt the outside goings on, visitors you enjoy some quality indoor classical entertainment courtesy of a rich and diverse concert program of liturgical and chamber music in Haifa’s churches and halls, artistically directed by biochemist, musicologist and art historian Prof. Amos Lanir. The shows on offer take in 17th-century music performed by the Phoenix Tarantella Napoletana ensemble, works by British Baroque and Renaissance composers Henry Purcell, John Dowland and John Blow, as well as a cross-genre offering from the Kolot Shluvim Women’s Ensemble, which will perform works by Bruckner and 19th-century French composer Leo Delibes, and world music and Israeli songs. The concerts will take place at Saint John’s Church, Mar Elias Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, Rappaport Hall, Tikotin Museum and The Studio Theater.
Goshen, who has been on board the Holiday of Holidays enterprise for the past six years, says the event has really taken off since it returned to the auspices of Beit Hagefen, following several years in which the Haifa Municipality ran things.
“As soon as the Arab Jewish Cultural Center, with a clearly defined agenda, began producing the festival again, I believe that the arts exhibitions took on a different appearance,” says the artistic director. “They are bigger, and they don’t just take place in the public domain. There are exhibitions in museums and galleries, and lots of other venues host shows including, for the first time, Haifa Museum and the Haifa City Museum. This festival is a celebration of art and culture.”
Goshen also notes that the festival onus is very much about making art and culture accessible to everyone.
“There has also been a change this year in the way the music is presented in Wadi Nisnas. In the past, there was one main stage. Now the music shows there will be presented on two smaller stages, which have a more intimate ambience,” he says.
Naturally, that also makes it possible to double the number of shows.
“We have scaled down the number of concerts, but we are now offering a wider range of music in the wadi,” explains Goshen. “There will be classical Arabic music, world music, more traditional Jewish music, and Jewish music that incorporates Western and Eastern styles. You will be able to walk past one stage and hear the Haifa Big Band playing, and then a few moments later hear a band playing Egyptian Arabic music.”
There will also be some more serious and academic goings on during the month, principally at the Wisdom of Crowds conference, where an impressive roster of artists, politicians and other public figures will air their views. People such as former Black Panther and MK Charlie Biton, TV and cinema veteran Asaf Raphaeli, journalist and author Hanoch Daum, lawyer, journalist and political adviser Eldad Yaniv and Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav will speak on such topics as freedom of expression, new media, education, community and politics.
As always, the festival roster also includes guided walking tours, and there are several left field items designed to arouse curiosity about one’s peers and engage in some earnest, down-to-earth dialogue. The Urban Laundry slot at Beit Hagefen is just that – a real life laundry set up for the festival to which anyone can bring their clothes and other washables, and have them washed and dried.
“It will offer an opportunity for people to just sit around and chat while the machines do the work,” says Goshen. “These days, we have fewer opportunities to get together. It will be an opportunity to get back to the good old pre-Internet, pre-cell phone days.”
Then there’s the Confession Box, where anyone can pop by and unload as they wish and have their outpourings recorded – anonymously, if so desired. Visitors can also get a handle on all manner of thoughts and feelings by listening to other confessions. And if there’s one thing we all indulge in, it’s moaning and groaning. That existential human need will also be provided for, with a gripe facility along the lines of the Confession Box.
Add to the above the intriguing, and somewhat pervasive, Inside the Trashcan tour, where participants can sift through all kinds of stuff slung out by the locals, to get some insight into how Haifa residents live, and you have one well-rounded and inviting festival.
“The core of the festival is to celebrate the cultural differences and variety of Haifa, which has so many communities and religions,” says Goshen. “The Holiday of Holidays festival is about celebrating that.”
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