Jaffa – Yad Hashmona – Jerusalem, one last cup of eggnog
There’s this place, a very nice place, on the promenade that runs along the Tel Aviv- Jaffa shoreline. If you look to the north, there’s Tel Aviv.
Then, if you look to the south, there’s Jaffa.
It would take millions and millions of posts like this one in order to explain what Tel Aviv is, what Jaffa is, and what it means to live in a country where different worlds coexist, squeezed together like passengers on a downtown morning bus. Suffice it to say that any step I make as a Jewish Israeli towards Jaffa leads to a discovery. This is still true today, years after I began exploring other societies in my native country. It’s still true, though, I have lived in the heart of Jaffa for three years, among Christian and Muslim Palestinians.
On this last day of the journey, I decided to track down my own experience with Christmas: to go to places where, over the years, I have made steps towards that red and green other world, which was unknown to me as a child. This experience began here in Jaffa, at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic church.
I must have been 18 when I decided to attend midnight mass here, only to see what it was like. To my surprise, the mass was held in Spanish, accompanied by an Andean pan-pipe band. The congregation was made up of Latin American migrant workers. Once they left, another group of people, speaking another language, gathered to pray.
Most Latin Americans have been deported since, along with the Chinese, the Romanians, the Turks, and more. Our Immigration authorities do their damnest to kill this city’s diversity, so I didn’t expect any pan pipes going into the church that morning. Nor, however, did I expect a piñata.
There wasn’t one hanging there, but there was light in the eyes of brother Donaciano when he said the word: piñata! He just helped fix the Christmas decorations and paused to chat with me about holiday traditions of his native Mexico.
Donaciano confirmed that the multilingual nights of Christmases past are gone. This coming Saturday night, mass will be held in two languages: English and Polish.
I would have loved to stay longer, but a friend was waiting for me. Libby is in fact a friend of the entire +972 crew. She’s the director of International Relations at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and being wise in the ways of NGOs, advises us sometimes on matters such as fundraising for Christmas journeys. A few days ago she posted on Facebook that she wishes she could join me for one day on the road. I couldn’t think of a better idea.
Libby herself grew up in an observant Jewish environment in Philadelphia. “I only met non-Jews in my ballet class,” she told me on our Jerusalem-bound sherut. Her experience with Christmas, however, was far less Alice-in-Wonderlandish than my own: “Living in the States, the sense of the holiday was prevalent everywhere. I kind of miss it, actually.”
“It’s prevalent here as well,” I argued. Eleven days of traveling among decorated trees and fake Santa beards must count for something.
“Yes, but only if you scratch beneath the surface. You can go to work here and not even realize it’s happening. You can’t do that in the States.”
We got off by the side of the hilly highway, about three quarters of the way to Jerusalem and headed to my next personal Christmas station. Though I have never celebrated Christmas at “Yad Hashmona,” a small community founded here in 1971 by Christian Finns, Finland itself is an important chapter in my travels. I fell in love with it while traveling in Europe, working as a musician. I adored everything about it: the sauna, the salty candy, the manner of its people, the peculiar language.
Ironically, love for an actual Finn was what carried me away from Finland – since that Finn lived in London at the time. Love for the open road, still too strong in my heart, broke up that affair in turn, but both Ullariikka and her country remain strongly in my heart. Over the years I’ve published two books about Finland, one a Hebrew retelling of its Mythology, the other a novel in which she figures as a major character. As Libby and I advanced towards Yad Hashmona, we spoke about love stories that spark and are extinguished and ones that don’t.
Then I told her about Finnish Christmas, about Maksalaatiko – a wonderful dish of liver and raisins (it really is wonderful, I swear), about the New Years traditions of reading the future in molten lead horseshoes, about candles and songs and a goat made of straw on the mantle: a reminder of a pagan winter festival that far preceeded Christianity.
Walking and chatting, we passed by the monument for Israeli sodiers who fought to brek the siege of Jerusalem’s Jewish communities in 1948.
It reminded me of something. The image below is what one gets when Googling “Sibelius monument, Helsinki”:
Trying to get from the monument to the moshav itself, we got tangled in a dense JNF-planted forest that reminded me very much of the outskirts of Jyväskylä:
But how Finnish is Yad Hashmona itself, over four decades following its establishment? It does feature a log-cabin hotel, and in its lobby hang Finnish flags along with a clock shaped like the map of Finland:
But the gift shop was all about local Judaica and no Christmas decorations were visible. Anja, a lady in her 70s who came in with the original settlers, told us that traditions are fading and that Christmas is barely celebrated. “It’s tiring, living in between cultures,” said Anja, “after a while you let go.”
“So no Christmas at all?” I asked.
“The kids are staging a play. That’s about it.”
Walking down the main road, we noticed three boys carrying toy guns and joked that they were they the three heavily armed wise men. To our delight. Turns out this is exactly what they were. Oz, Eitan and Gideon play various roles in the Christmas play. They pointed out preteen Mary, who crossed the road not far from where we stood.
The Christmas story was adjusted to post-modern Israeli realities, or at least fantasies. Gideon, the only member of the threesome to claim full Finnish roots, will play a shepard who uses an iPad to manage his sheep. When we asked him to reherse a line from the play, he waved the imaginary gizmo and exclaimed: “Direct from China!”
“That’s really something!” replied Oz in the role of another Bethlehmite, then kissed his squeezed fingers in the appreciative gesture common around the Mediterranean. Libby and I burst out laughing.
As we headed out of town, laughter gave way to concern. The State of Israel in the 70s was open to receive foreign Christians, so long as they expressed support for Zionism. We assumed that today the creation of a similar community would be impossible. Not only migrant workers are unwelcome, even progressive Jews like Libby and I are outcast in the current Liebermanian climate.
The diversity revealed in this Christmas journey is very much threatened, in a land where the government only favors one type of people: Jewish Zionists who obediently accept both the occupation and the sick economic order. We stopped at a nearby roadside gas station’s eatery for a comfoting hamburger. It was the famous “Elvis in Jerusalem” diner, established by true fan Uri Yoelli.
Sitting in the bizarre interior decorated with Elvis murals, Elvis statues and Elvis coffee mugs, we called up my next Christmas station: The Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies of Brigham Young University. Another love story relates me to that place: One that lasted seven years.
Linsey was a Mormon when I met her, then left the Church. It would take millions and millions of posts like this one to explain who she was at the time, who I was at the time and what it meant to be close to someone going through a process such as this. So we’ll let it go and stick with Christmas. She was the one who truly let me know what it means. We’ve gone through various misunderstandings, until I learned that it is not a one-day holiday, that it begins in November, and ends only once the soul truly feels forced to let go. I had to overcome the sense of threat instilled in me, I had to learn to buy gifts (or rather make them, as that was Linsey’s spirit), to enjoy the foods and the family time, to see Christmas the way she saw and loved the Jewish holidays. After all, we were married.
There is nothing very unusual about Mormon Christian traditions, and Linsey remained non-Mormon after our divorce, but considering the magnitude of the relationship, I felt a need to visit Jerusalem’s Utah embassy, where she still attended services on her first visit to the country. This turned out not to be a simple task. Since students and faculty are on Christmas break, no tours are given on the center’s grounds, and strangers, we were told, are admitted only on tours. We finagled the number of one of the center’s managers. Libby called her, as we hoped her native American accent would instill trust in us. The lady, though sweet, was reluctant to help, not for lack of hospitality, but for fear of the authorities.
In order to open a branch of its university in East Jerusalem, the LDS Church had to commit to the Israeli government that no proselytizing at all will take place. Any talk about Mormon traditions, not to mention beliefs, is out of the question. This hit Libby, who lives and breaths civil rights, the wrong way. “It’s a freedom of speech issue.” she noted, and forgot all about the food on her plate, considering an outcry over the issue.
Defiant, we went on to Jerusalem and reached the top of Mount Scopus, where the center is located. Before its locked gates we finally accepted that it is impenetrable, so we had a picnic instead.
BYU Jerusalem is located in an extremely attractive spot. This is, coincidentally, the same slope from which I took the final photo of the September Journey.
And we had with us the one compensation for not enjoying an evening with the Mormons: beer! Which they don’t drink! In fact, we had with us some of that same St. Bernardus Christmas Ale that uncorked this journey, when I noticed someone drinking it next to me at the Norma Jean. Here’s Libby holding the treasure, with BYU Jerusalem in the background.
With so many neat allusions to ends and beginnings, you’d think this would be a good place to finish, but there was still one more place to go, and especially on the day dedicated to my own personal Christmas: my dearest Jerusalemite friends – a bunch of Jewish Israelis and one Palestinian of Muslim upbringing – were throwing a Christmas and Hannukah party, complete with eggnog, sufganiot, bamba, vodka and the Grover doll pictured earlier.
And as the evening heated up I felt what I always do at the end of a good trip: that the best parts of it are the ones not traveled alone, and that none of it was traveled alone. You, my dear readers, were party to every step. You deserve the best holiday season ever, and regardless of what you choose to celebrate. Celebrate this life, and celebrate this country and its unbelievable richness.
About the Christmas Journey:
This December, Yuval Ben-Ami embarks on a 10-day journey across Israel and Palestine – to tell the stories of Christmas as it’s celebrated today, in the holy land.
As a volunteer-based media organization with a small budget, +972 Magazine must look externally to cover basic travel expenses needed for special projects like these. Please support the Christmas Journey by making a contribution here, and spreading the word to friends and family!