It’s Sylvester here in Israel!!! No joke! Everyone is wishing everyone a joyous Sylvester, but I’ll leave you in about as much suspense over what this is as we were wondering. But more about the mysterious chap later….
The past few weeks have been some of my busiest to date:With Chanukah over, I started night classes of Ulpan (next level… you know, the really hard one!!! am I nuts?); have been working since October on my first two real jobs – as an event planner for a Bar Mitzvah in Haifa and for a Brit Milah (circumcision party) in Rishon LeTzion, both this past week!! Plus, we decided to take in as much varied local culture and customs as possible in search of Christmas celebrations in the Galilee. Yes, in the Jewish Homeland, many different people do celebrate Christmas in some form or another.
We found out about a Russian Orthodox St. Nicholas celebration happening in the lower Galilee in the early part of December. There have been over a million immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union since the 1980s. All are of Jewish descent, but in Russia & Ukraine, most people were atheist. A few still celebrate the Orthodox Catholic religion of their grandparents. Most are learning about their Jewish roots and are practicing Judaism. It’s quite the mix. We found the place after much searching. I couldn’t understand any of the language, but we were gathered in a hall one Sunday night with a solemn Russian contingent. There was a jingling of bells and a knock at the door. In came St. Nick, carrying a staff, sack, and candle. Numerous questions were asked of him – to which he chanted the response. I imagine he was telling the story of the Christ child, because after the long responsa, he proceeded to light everyone’s candles. Afterwards there was lots of singing and then the distribution of oranges and small toys to the children.
Several days later, I was shocked to see a large blow up Santa in front of the “shekel shop” in a Karmi’el strip mall. Had to see this one! Inside there were Christmas trees and lots and lots of MONKEYS!!!??? What a strange world in which we find ourselves! It turns out the secular Russians here have brought with them their custom of celebrating NovyGod, a winter holiday. So I had a long talk with Ylena, my classmate and friend from the Ukraine. What a great miracle! Six months ago we were unable to communicate, but now have a common ground in Hebrew. Novygod is not Christmas, but a festival that took its place in the Soviet countries. DiyetMorose, or Grandfather Frost accompanied by Snegurochka, the young Snow Maiden make their appearance New Year’s Eve. Trees are brought into the home and decorated and the father and mother dress up as Gr. Frost (red suit and hat trimmed in white fur) and Snow Maiden (blue short dress and cap trimmed in white fur), distributing presents to the kiddies. It’s pure revelry and has no religious significance. So what about those monkeys popping up everywhere throughout town? This is the year of the monkey, borrowed from the Chinese New Year…
So many cultures! Now for the Ethiopians…. the lost tribes are indeed coming into the Land of Promise. Since the mid-1980s, Beit Yisrael from Ethiopia have been returning. They are true descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and their son Meneluk. They have existed as Jews with Torah, are Shabbat and Mosaic Law observant, and have brought many of their own rituals and traditions to this diverse land of Israel. On the 29th of Kislev, towards the middle of Chanukah, they celebrate their own holiday, Sigd. As a result of years of persecution by Ethiopian kings, many Christian, they would retreat into the wilderness to pray for G-d’s mercy. It became a yearly commemoration and was observed 50 days after Yom Kippur. The 50 days were times of fasting and soul-searching for them, and also served as a means of bringing unity to the people, as well as to keep them from abandoning the ancient faith. On Sigd, they make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and congregate at the Western Wall to break the fast with much singing and dancing!!! What a party! We went to the upper plaza to watch them arrayed in white robes, carrying their Torah scrolls – and huge brightly colored umbrellas adorned with tinny mirrors and sequins. They were singing and drumming in their flowing white, pumping the umbrellas in beat to the songs and dancing joyously. What an amazing sight to behold!
While in Jerusalem, we attended a Sunday Mass with the Hebrew Speaking Catholics. They are a diverse group from all over the world, some who are professors at Hebrew University, doctors at Hadassah Hospital, day laborers from Philippines, Mexico, India and Africa. Some are Catholic by birth, others coverts to the faith from Judaism. All speak Hebrew as the common language. The Kehillat was founded by the French sixty years ago. The service is Roman Catholic, but with a decidedly Jewish flavor and style of worship. After all, it is Israel. There are no crucifixes or stained glass, or other appointments one would expect to see in a Church. Most Catholics in the world celebrate Advent in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Here, the Advent period, known as the Great Advent is a thirteen week period of preparation. A ladder of thirteen candles is lit, one candle for each week. The first week starts with stories of creation and Adam & Eve; then Noah; Abraham;Isaac; Jacob; Joseph; Moses; David; and the Prophets of the Tanach. The last four weeks follow the Roman Rite traditions of readings and songs leading up to Christmas. All very beautiful and very interesting.
So much festivity, pomp and circumstance in this truly rich and diverse land. We had heard of the Festival of Lights in Haifa, a celebration of Chanukah, Christmas, and the Muslim, Eid. So after finishing the last touches for the upcoming BarMitzvah I was planning, we decided to drive down to the German Colony to see what it was all about. This too, did not fail to disappoint… in all its kitschiness!!!! Ben Gurion Street from the famous Bahai Gardens to the port was lined with both Christmas and Chanukah lights. All the restaurants (mostly Arab) were decorated to the hilt. People sat, as is customary in many restaurants, smoking their hookah pipes under giant red and green umbrellas. At the far end of the square was a giant Christmas tree, a beautiful peace dove Chanukkiah, and a star and crescent in white lights. We even had a parade as a Chabad motorcade of 16 cars adorned with festive menorahs atop drove up and down the street blasting Chanukah tunes! What a show! Not America, but a show nonetheless…
I tried as best I could to find the magical shiny pumpkin Christmas cookies made by the Arab Christians and sold in their little towns’ Christmas markets, but could not find a Christmas market anywhere!!! I had wanted to send Christmas cards to all my friends back in the States, but there was not one to be found in this whole country!!!! And for me, with the hectic schedule, time was running short. There were festivities and fireworks in Eliabun for the Arab Christians; Rama had their own local caroling and concerts; and other towns boasted local town parties for Christmas. Alas: I must save some things for next year. John and I did a search for a Christmas market in a place we knew was sure to have tons: Nazareth!!! And I had wanted to visit my girlfriend, Fatima’s new baby in the hospital there (former post).No Christmas markets, but by very late afternoon we found the Church of the Annunciation. This is the Church built atop the home of Mary of Nazareth, mother of Jesus. It was here the angel, Gabriel, would ask this observant Jewish teenager to become the mother of the Messiah. Apart from an Israeli University tour led in Hebrew, we had the place to ourselves. There was no one else to be seen. The walls were filled with displays of gorgeous Madonnas from all over the world. At the bottom floor was an archaeological site. The whole huge church was resting on Mary’s girlhood home, still intact. Silent night –
The night before Christmas eve, we heard about a lovely program at the Scots Hotel (built by the Presbyterian Scots/St. Andrews Society as a mission hospital in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee). They offered a package deal of afternoon tea, madrigals, chamber music, and dinner, followed by operatic arias by members of the Israeli Opera and then drinks in the Ceileidh (Kay-lee) Bar. So, for those of our friends back home, John kept up the tradition in grand, Scots, style!
Now….what about Sylvester??? No I haven’t forgotten as our Sylvester draws ever closer. As the Russians are enjoying Novygod, the rest of Israel will be toasting Sylvester. Whaaaaaaaat????? Yup. Israel has Rosh HaShonnah as the “real” New Year. Guess I waited too late to buy my 2016 calendar, cause there aint none now. Live and learn. That was September, the liturgical New Year. This is just the secular world’s New Year, kinda like celebrating the fiscal year. Yes, there will be wild bashes tonight in Tel Aviv, and private home parties elsewhere, but here “Joyful Sylvester” takes it’s place. StalloneFest as Rambo or Rocky?? I’ll be spending the evening watching Sylvester and Tweety Looney Tunes downloads.
Today, according to the Catholic Church is the Feast Day of St. Sylvester. You’re kidding me, right???? Yup. Sylvester was a Pope in the early days of the Church. He fought against the Heresy of Arianism and called together the Council of Nicea. He was Pope during the reign of Constantine…. the Emperor who called all Jews and Pagans to convert to Catholicism or die by the sword. So for some strange reason, Israelis here wish you a Happy Sylvester. Go figure. I’ll stick to my Looney Tunes.
D…d…d…dat’s all, Folks!