Christmas in Israel
By John Sode-Woodhead
On Christmas Eve Immanuel church in Tel Aviv was packed. Sahar led the service, and as he stood there and in his clear Israeli Tel Avivi Hebrew declared, “I am a Jew. I am in Israeli. I want to tell you this evening about Yeshua, our peoples Messiah. Although God, he came to this world for us as men and women, and ultimately died on the cross to save our sins. Tonight, we are celebrating his coming, and I want to share with you about it.”
There was that lovely Christmas Eve atmosphere within the church. Candles were burning, the lights were dimed, the lights on the Christmas tree were blinking, the organist was playing beautiful Christmas music, the atmosphere was perfect. All that stirs us up at Christmas time. And yet this was no ordinary Christmas service – the church was absolutely packed out with Jewish Israelis who came specifically to experience a Christian Christmas Eve service. This was not new as every year Immanuel Church holds a Christmas Eve service to which many Israelis come but this year there was something different as – instead of the normal chatting, the silence in the audience was powerful.
The emphasis on the specialness of this Christmas was experienced throughout the country with Israelis flocking in their thousands to every Christian city and neighbourhood to experience Christmas. Many of my tour guide friends were frantically learning up about Christmas to give tours. They found they just needed to wear a red hat and coat, ring a bell, and call out that they were going to guide a ‘Christmas tour’ and they would collect about fifteen people at a time willing to pay £25 per person. This is when they would come to me wanting me to go through what Christmas is all about. I had the most amazing opportunities not only to explain the frivolous but to go through Gospel accounts.
Haifa and Nazareth
The Feast of Feasts has become one of the important cultural events on the Haifa scene with thousands of people turning up in the German Colony during December. Its stated objective is to celebrate the Hanukkah, the Jewish Feast of Lights, Eid el-Adha, the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, and the Christian Christmas, but its immediately apparent to anyone that Christmas commands centre place both in decorations and the atmosphere generated. This year the Feast was celebrated with extra enthusiasm – Covid-19 no doubt had something to do with it, but the atmosphere was magic.
One tour guide friend I had helped, dressed as Santa had collected a group of some twenty people. To my surprise she called me and asked if she could bring her group to Bet Eliyahu, the NCMI Centre just off the German Colony. I told her that in order not to take up much of her time I would meet her outside. I began sharing with the group on the Norwegian mission and what it is doing in Israel, but they were more interested that the Bet Eliyahu Messianic Congregation met in the building and wanted to know more. I took them indoors and explained to them that Messianic Jews were Jews who have come to know Yeshua as their own Messiah.
I helped others of my friends to prepare their tours in Nazareth. What an opportunity it was not just to speak about the visible traditions of Christmas but also open the Gospels and go through the Christmas stories with them.
Nazareth was special to me as this was where I grew up. Nazareth lies in a narrow valley running north to south. At its northern end is Mary’s well and the Greek Orthodox Church of St Gabriel. And while ancient Nazareth extended along the valley to the Catholic Church of Annunciation, beyond it Mt Precipice is visible, the hill with a cliff on its southern side dropping off into the Jezreel Valley. This hill beautifully illustrates the attempts of the people of Nazareth to throw Jesus off the cliff after rejecting him in the synagogue.
When my family had first moved to Nazareth, when I was five years old, few houses had running water and I remember the women going down to the Sabil, the old Ottoman well building, to collect their water. Later, the Nazareth Municipality under the mistaken assumption that westerners preferred the modern, tore down the old well along with cutting down a few very tall and beautiful cedar trees near it. Unfortunately, they built it higher than the water level, and pumps were too expensive, so it has been decades since water flowed out of it.
As we set out from Mary’s well, we walked through the Ottoman marketplace. I became nostalgic, remembering my childhood running through these streets. We stopped at the Greek Orthodox Bishop’s residence and went down to the underground caves that Nazareth is full of. Local folklore claims it’s possible to go from one end of the ancient town to the other end just through these caves. We continued through the market with chic modern cafes but retaining a traditional atmosphere. We passed the Arab calligraphy shop, and other shops selling traditional Palestinian dresses. We stopped off at what is reputed to be the oldest café in Israel which has been running continuously since 1906 and the current owner is the grandson of the founder. We were served with what is considered a delicacy that is given on special occasions such as to mothers just after giving birth – tea mixed with cardamom seeds and cinnamon.
From there we walked down to the Church of Annunciation, the spot where Catholics believe was the home of Mary and where the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she was to bear the Messiah. Just up the hill from it is another church claimed to be built over the home of Joseph.
Then there are the delicacies of Nazareth. The in thing now is to acquire an old Ottoman house, bring out all its historic features and atmosphere, while providing a rich fusion of oriental and western cuisine. A new restaurant was just opened in the old flour mill. The proprietor was telling us that as a boy he attended primary school on the upper floor. Mana’ish – a pizza style base with toppings of either Za’atar, Basal, or Jibneh and this with good Arab coffee; the Shawarma’s or kebabs, and alternatively the vegetarian falafels alongside countless small dishes containing Humous and a kaleidoscope of salads. To top it off you can go to one of the Kunefe shops and sample this amazing Arab pastry. You can’t miss the many bakeries and spice shops, el-Babour being a special experience with all the machinery for grinding spices going back to the 19th century suffused by the rich aromas. Of course, with it being Christmas a new feature are the mulled wine and roasted chestnuts stands.
It all sounds ideal, but not when it rains. The valley of Nazareth is surrounded by steeply hills covered with tightly packed buildings between which are narrow roads. Once upon a time these roads were mere tracks up which donkeys moved with their heavy loads. In time as houses were built on either side of these tracks staircases and alleyways replaced them. Alleyways I well remember from my childhood. But then when every family acquired at least one car and they wanted their car to reach their homes, asphalt was poured over the stairs turning them in places into terrifyingly steep streets. When it rains, it rains. Northern Israel gets as much rain as Scotland does, but it falls over a three-to-four-month period rather than year-round, and in Nazareth its channelled down the steep streets. One of the days in Nazareth, was just such a day. There was no way to keep dry and soon the cold penetrated every bone. I always think it hilarious the attitude of many Israelis to rain. I laugh at them saying that with one drop they scurry indoors. On this day, although I insisted on continuing as normal, within me I wished I had not been so stubborn and proud.
A friend had been asked to give a Christmas tour of Jaffa on Christmas Eve. She had never guided and was quite anxious. The last time she had been there was during the course. As I was going to Tel Aviv for the service at Immanuel Church, I agreed to go earlier and to walk her through the heart of the ancient town. Jaffa was festooned with Christmas decorations, including the obligatory giant Christmas tree. St Peter’s Catholic Church is the heart of the Christian Christmas events in the town. Unlike any other church building, it faces west instead of east, to welcome the pilgrims coming from European shores to the Holy Land. We started out in the clock tower square. Jaffa began to expand out of its ancient city wall in the 1860’s and the square was formed just outside the northern gate. It was in this square the Ottomans set up their two key buildings of government, the ‘Saraya’, or local government administration, which was blown up by the LHI in the 1948 war, and opposite on the other side of the square, the ‘Kishle’ or prison, recently opened as a chic boutique hotel, but prior to this its most notorious occupant had been Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi officer responsible for exterminating Jews who was caught in Argentina and brought to trial in Israel. The clock tower is one of some 200 erected throughout the Ottoman Empire in 1901 for the Silver Jubilee of the Sultan Abd el-Hamid II, the last absolute Ottoman ruler
Having oriented ourselves we headed down to the ancient port. For centuries this was the gateway into the land and was only eclipsed during the British Mandate by the construction of Haifa port. This was also the port from which Jonah tried to outrun God by sailing on his fateful voyage towards Spain. Climbing up through the old Ottoman streets of the city we came across a building with a sign over it declaring it to be ‘Simon the Tanner’ house. It is highly unlikely this was his house as the building is Ottoman, and anyway, with tanning being such a dirty and messy business, it was usually relegated to the margins of any town. However, the house does remind us of Peter who had stayed with Simon, and one afternoon, while there, he had a vision of unclean food coming down from heaven and being told to eat of it. To begin with, to say the least, he was reluctant to do so. Just as he began to understand that it was the Lord asking him to do so, there was a knock at the door and two men sent by Cornelius, a centurion from Caesarea, asked if he would accompany them back to their master. Although Cornelius was an ‘unclean’ Gentile in the eyes of the Jews, Peter followed them to Caesarea. It was there that Peter led Cornelius, the first Gentile to be baptized.
I left my friend to do her guiding while I spent the evening at Immanuel church and then stayed for Christmas dinner with the staff and volunteers. It was a couple of days later we were told that one of those present had tested positive for Covid-19 and we all had to go into a week of isolation. I was relieved to find that my PCR test was negative.
Although interest in Christmas has been growing over the past years, it just seemed to explode this year. Not only were there tens of thousands out on the streets celebrating every evening, but even my local supermarket was packed with Christmas decorations. This is a major change in attitudes from what I had known as a kid. I attended a Jewish school and not only was there no awareness of Christmas, but it would also have been unthinkable for Jews to go out and experience a Christian Christmas. My parents had to seek special permission each year for us to have a couple of days off to celebrate Christmas.
To my friends at school Jesus was a Christian from Nazareth. The only name they would use for Jesus was not Yeshua, his proper name, but YE-SH-U, an acronym standing for ‘May his name be forgotten and erased forever’. In those days there was only a handful of Jews in the whole country who believed in Yeshua as the Messiah. At the age of 13 I joined the national Messianic youth group and there couldn’t have been more than 25 of us between the ages of 13 and 30. That’s what there was.
Jews viewed Messianic Jews as traitors. Having survived Christianity for 2,000 years culminating with the holocaust, a trauma that was still haunting many of my friends and their parents. And despite all of this, here were Jews who had chosen to believe in ‘that man’. There is still a strong attitude of antipathy towards Yeshua, most still call him YESHU, but attitudes are slowly changing. More and more one hears ‘Yeshua’ being used and on our tour guides course we were told we had to refer to him as such. When one lady asked why? We were told for two reasons. The first was that Evangelicals know exactly what Jews mean when they say YESHU and denigrating the religious founders and leaders of another religion is no longer politically correct, and secondly, he was Jewish and his name was Yeshua.
Part of the growing acceptance of Yeshua has to do with the growing numbers of Messianic Jews. Despite viewing them more like some would the Mormons, they observe that Messianic Jews are Jewish, Israeli, and enthusiastic about serving the nation particularly through national service.
The changing attitudes, the grudging acceptance of Messianic Jews, and the growing interest in Christianity, and Christmas, even the frivolous side of it, is all part of a process of reclaiming Yeshua. The gulf is still great, misunderstanding enormous, and feelings run deep. There are Jewish organisations dedicated to countering Christianity and Messianic Jews, and I observed how some of my Jewish friends have an antipathy towards Christianity they don’t appear to have towards other faiths. Some of my friends were comfortable entering a mosque or a Druze Hilwe but would not enter a church. Despite this, in my lifetime I have seen the Jewish community, having established themselves back in the land, are beginning to look beyond.
I have a good friend who observed the behaviour of a couple of Arab Christians colleagues at work and asked them what was different about them. They were not religious, considering themselves as regular young Israeli Arab men. They couldn’t understand what he was going on about! He was intrigued and began a Google search on Christianity. He soon came across a New Testament and as he read it, he was amazed to discover the book was written by Jews, about a Jew, and for Jews, and it was not an anti-Semitic document written in the Vatican in the Middle Ages. As he read, he came face to face with Yeshua and an acceptance that he was the Messiah, the Son of David.
There is an unconscious process of reclaiming Yeshua but one that is becoming obvious with hindsight, and one that will no doubt intensify.