by Cherryl Smith (El Cerrito, CA)
I’m wheeling my new rolling cart out of the supermarket on HaPalmach on Christmas Eve, strolling past Bank Hapoalim, which looks pretty crowded, and congratulating myself on the purchase of the brown and white checkered shopping cart that makes the seven block trek back to our apartment on Rechov Alkalai an easy errand, no awkward maneuvering of heavy grocery-filled plastic bags or hands red from the drawstrings. There’s a new bookstore on the corner and tonight I decide to go in. It’s a small, inviting place with a good English selection and an electric kettle for tea or instant coffee. I browse for a few minutes and though I’m feeling carefree and happy, I resist buying more books, say l’hitraot to the young clerk and go back outside where the air is cold, and the streets, the open stores, the traffic — all are the same as on any other weekday evening.
How to describe this, the joy of Christmas in the Holy Land?
Tourists have arrived from around the globe and the hotels in Jerusalem, as well as in Bethlehem, are full. The municipality is distributing free evergreen trees at Jaffa Gate to anyone who wants one. For the past few nights, a lime green floodlight has been projected onto the Old City walls. There is even a large inflated Santa Claus outside a shop on a side street in the Christian Quarter. Around 10 pm, we hear bells ringing from the Old City and we do not, immediately, remember that it’s Christmas Eve.
This is my first visit to Israel in winter, the first time that I have experienced Christmas as just another day, all the weeks and months leading up to it invisible within the Jewish calendar of Haggim and Shabbatot that create the rhythm of life here. It’s the first winter that I have not wished to flee my surroundings, to mute the sensory barrage of piped in Christmas music, the glare of Christmas lights, the shopping countdown and the spending frenzy–the first time that Chanukah has not been swept into the holidays of “the season.”
There is Christmas in Israel and it is a religious observance, the reason for the December influx of tourism to the sites made famous by Christianity. Here, in the one Jewish country of the world, Christmas is not a national holiday. The day passes unnoticed in the Jewish and Arab-Muslim neighborhoods and for the first time in my life the weeks of December did not include finding a response to the question: “Are you ready for Christmas?”
The IBA English news even interviewed Christian tourists in a kind of human interest story you sometimes see given to Jewish holidays in the US. The tourists, “some of whom refer to themselves as pilgrims,” notes Yochanan Elron, the anchor, have filled the hotels and are enjoying Israel for the holiday. IBA news’ Leah Stern speaks to visitors outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. One African-American woman traveling with a tour group is especially enthusiastic. What does she want to tell the folks back home? “Everybody” ought to come here, see the sites, spend time in Israel. It’s safer here than in the cities in the USA. You’ve “just got to experience Christmas in Israel,” she says. It is “the best Christmas” of her life.
The same for me, exactly.
Cherryl Smith is author of After Being Somewhere Else (poems) and Writing Your Way Through College, a student’s guide. She teaches writing at Sacramento State University where she is a Professor in Composition and Rhetoric. During the fall and winter of 2007 she taught at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
This piece is reprinted with permission of the author.