Galilee Diary: Seasons greetings

January 31, 2011Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein

You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not remain in your land, lest they cause you to sin against Me; for you will serve their gods - and it will prove a snare to you.
-Exodus 23:32-33

For years, the mixed neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas in Haifa has held a popular and colorful street festival with art exhibits, tours and cultural events during December, a "festival of festivals" celebrating Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holidays; recently, the custom has spread elsewhere. Christmas and Chanukah, of course, always fall reasonably close together. The Muslim combination can be a bit of a stretch, as the two major Muslim holidays, Id El Fitr (the end of Ramadan), and Id El Adha (the festival of the sacrifice of Ishmael/Isaac), which are 40 days apart, migrate through the solar year. There is a period of about 8 years out of every 32 when one of them will fall somewhere in the vicinity of December. Nevertheless, the idea is stronger than the astronomy, so the events are held every year and the Muslims are included even if their festivals have receded to another season entirely.

This year, the Galilee Circus (the Jewish-Arab youth circus that my education center operates) was invited to perform at the "festival of festivals" program at the Galilee School in our neck of the Galilee, a bilingual Jewish-Arab public elementary school founded by the Hand in Hand Foundation, that has been in existence since the late 1990s (it is one of several alternative public schools in the area, that parents can choose). I had some Jewish visitors from Mexico interested in seeing the show, so we dropped in on the festival.  There were all kinds of activities for parents and kids - arts, study sessions, food.  There were Maccabees and Santa Clauses wandering around.  The Muslim holidays, besides their disconnection from the seasons, are essentially family feasts, lacking any particular symbols or historical figures, so it is difficult to give them equal play. The one distinctive symbol is the sheep that is slaughtered and eaten, but that doesn't go over so well with young children.

Before the circus came on, there was a whole series of performances of songs by various classes, and the choir, and the orchestra. Mostly Chanukah songs in Hebrew, and Christmas songs in Arabic. One class lined up on the stage, all except one in Santa Claus hats. My Mexican guests were a bit freaked out by the whole experience - somehow this is not what they had imagined they would find in the Jewish state, and weren't sure how they felt about it - indeed, I know people who say that one of the factors that motivated them to move to Israel was the desire to escape the Christmas season in North America.

I encountered many friends and acquaintances at the event, and during the performance found myself standing with a local Conservative rabbi. "See the kid without the hat?" he said; "That's my son. I told the teacher that that was our limit." Interesting. I wonder what I would have done. When I was in fourth grade I was Santa Claus in the school play, and when the teacher called my parents to ask permission, they were thrilled that I was the star. But the Mexicans' wonderment is actually in place - there is something surprising and ironic in this festival. We have gone to a lot of trouble over the past century to create a place that, finally, would be "just Jewish," where our culture would be the culture of the land, where we wouldn't have to wonder if our kids should be singing Christmas carols. And here we are, wearing (or not) Santa Claus hats in the Jewish state, trying to work out just what should be our relationship to the other cultures around us. 

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah and Galilee Diary.

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