As has been the case for the past 24 years, this year I will again be amazed at the total absence of Christmas in Israel.
I grew up in America, so the idea that Christmas can disappear from my cultural sight is still remarkable. It’s not just that Dec. 25 is a regular day here; it’s that as they get up in the morning and go about their business, many Israelis will not even be conscious that the day is Christmas.
My friend Krista Gerloff, a religious Christian, is very much aware of Christmas. Krista, a native Czech, moved to Israel in 1994 from Germany with two small children and her German husband. Three more children were born in Israel. Here is what Krista shared with me about her experience of Christmas in Israel:
“When I first came to Israel and observed and experienced the Erev [eve of] Shabbat celebration, I thought: That’s like Christmas every week. You start to plan it in advance: What you will cook and bake (and according to that you do your shopping), and how you will arrange your time so that the house is clean before the Sabbath. The whole family comes together on Friday night and everybody is neatly dressed. But it is not only the planning, it is the expectation of the Shabbat to come. It is a family celebration every week as we Czech Christians have on Christmas Eve once a year.
“Once I saw on the internet an American Christmas show and I couldn’t believe my eyes: Dozens of dancers dressed as Father Christmas were jumping around to the sound of ‘Jingle Bells.’
“What does this have to do with the Birth of Jesus in Bethlehem? I am happy that I live in a country that calls Christmas by its real name—Chag ha-Molad: the Celebration of the Birth.
“But of course there is no celebration of Christmas in the Jewish state except the celebrations in the Galilee (where Arab Christians mainly live) and especially in Bethlehem in the Palestinian Authority. In my European home Christmas is so much part of people’s life that I was asked: ‘What do Jews do on Christmas?’ My answer was: ‘Nothing–they live their everyday life and also my children go to school.’
“So what is there on Christmas for Christians in Jerusalem?
“There are those Christmas cypress trees that the Jewish National Fund generously offers every year, and there are just two services on the night of the 24th of December in the Old City, in the Anglican Christ Church and in the Protestant Church of the Redeemer.
“They are so overcrowded by Christians and curious Israelis that the pastor begs his friends not to come. Can you imagine? The pastor asks the believers not to come to church on Christmas Eve! Of course he doesn’t want anybody to be trampled.
“Many traditional Christians are used to a liturgical silence but those Christmas services are full of Israelis who walk around, talk and sigh with pleasure over the ‘Silent Night’ that the church choir sings bravely into the general chaos.
“Since I live in Israel I remind myself daily that Yeshua was a Jew—he was neither Czech nor European and He must have been very different from what I always imagined. So if you really and truly want to escape the Christmas rush, come to the land where Yeshua was born.”
Teddy Weinberger is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.