The holiday season is behind us, and with it went all the “ho, ho, ho,” Christmas cheer, Christmas music, Christmas decorations, and the ever-present reminder that America is a Christian country—even though it professes not to be.
One of the great things about living in Israel is that Israel is a Jewish country, even though it acknowledges and respects other religions here. With only 4 percent of the country’s population registered as other than Jewish or Arab, Christians are definitely in the minority—even though more Christian tourists visited the country in 2011 than Jewish ones.
The Christmas experience in Israel is pretty much confined to tourists visiting Bethlehem, although the Jewish National Fund gives out Christmas trees to Christians living in the country.
In December, living in a Jewish country is a palpable experience. The malls are not besieging shoppers with Christmas music, Santa Claus is not standing on every corner and the shopping experience is for Chanukah.
I remember being here in December 1990—right before the Gulf War—on a mission for editors of Jewish papers sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism. We got off the plane and made our way to Tel Aviv. Jelly doughnuts (sufganiot in Hebrew) were everywhere, instead of candy canes and chocolate Santas. It was a reprieve from the Christmas in the United States that we had all left behind.
Jelly doughnuts are the preferred Chanukah delicacy here. They win hands down over potato latkes—perhaps because they are so much more readily accessible—plus the fact that someone else is making them, and you don’t have to stand over a hot stove and fry them yourself.
Although we’ve been here for 13 Decembers, the memories of that Chanukah in December 1990 came flashing back this year. My husband, Allen, was in Hadassah Hospital during Chanukah, and Chanukah in the hospital was something to experience.
Every day volunteers came to the room with sufganiot—from different Jerusalem bakeries. (An article in The Jerusalem Post during Chanukah rated the high calorie treat from various bakeries in the city. We don’t know which ones the volunteers patronized, but according to Allen, some were definitely better than others.) Too bad if the patient was on a low fat, low sugar diet!
Then every day students came to visit and sing Chanukah songs. Many of them were teenage girls, including some Americans who are studying in seminaries here for the year, and some of the groups included young men and women. (I guess they must have asked the haredi patients if they wanted to hear the songs, or maybe they just skipped those rooms.) Some days, more than one group appeared – perhaps one in the afternoon and one in the evening.
Allen’s room was at the end of the hall, near the lounge for patients’ families. In the evening, one of the student groups put on a program including candle lighting and a medley of Chanukah tunes. And one evening, two women put on a mini-concert with guitar and flute.
And the top of Hadassah Hospital had a gigantic electric menorah.
There are many things we love about living in Jerusalem; the holiday atmosphere in December is certainly one of them.