What is Christmas for me, a Jew who lives in Israel and hails from the UK? What was it?

Up to age 11, I didn’t take a lot of notice of it. There were trees with lights behind lots of windows. Radio and TV were full of it. That was about all.

At age 11, I found myself suddenly immersed in a tradition I didn’t recognise. I soon learned the tunes of the carols we had to sing every day. I sent cards to friends because everyone did and my goal was always to fit in. And then there was that art lesson….

“Today, you can draw Christmas pictures.” The teacher (I think she was called Mrs Durell) seemed to think this would be fun for us. My heart sank. Fit in, said a voice from inside. “For the Jewish children, you can draw something from the festival you have at this time if you want, but I’m told there isn’t much to draw.” A general murmur of agreement arose. I kept quiet, although I knew this wasn’t true. We had drawn pictures of Chanuka at my old school. That’s how I learned to draw a cube.

chanukadrawings

Fit in, said the voice. But I don’t know what or how to draw for Christmas. Fit in. I looked over a girl’s shoulder and copied her tree.

At university, I remember singing carols, including one about beautiful feet.

Edit: I’ve been corrected by someone who remembers much more than I. I think I was confusing our “College Carol” with the aria from Handel’s Messiah. Here’s the right one. The only connection with feet is in the words stand forth on the floor, at which we would stamp our feet.

At work, there were drinks. There were always drinks. And the following conversation in the bar with one of the men:

“What are doing for Christmas?”

“I’m going to a conference in Oxford.”

“That’s an unusual thing to do for Christmas. Most people spend it with their families.”

“Oh, we don’t celebrate Christmas. We’re Jewish.” It had taken three months for them to find out.

Then I moved to Israel and Christmas was reduced to watching the evening service from Bethlehem on TV. That’s really all I saw of it.

Nowadays, with social media, Christmas has become much more visible to me – at least the commercial aspect of it has. Also, due to Internet connection, I am able to listen to the BBC. The other day, on Women’s Hour, there was a discussion about stories behind children’s nativity plays. Within those stories, at least two girls had been told they couldn’t be Mary because they were Jewish and didn’t have blond hair. In the podcast, after the live programme, there was mention of the fact that Mary was Jewish and also that, since she lived in the Middle East, she probably didn’t have blond hair.

I am bemused by the assumption that, while I might not take any part in the religious aspects of Christmas, I will celebrate in some way because everyone does. No. Here, work and everything else carries on as usual, even on Christmas day. This year, though, will be slightly different due to the fact that it coincides exactly with the minor festival of Chanuka. As always, schools will be open on the first day of Chanuka, which is also Christmas Day this year (and also Sunday – the first day of the week here) and they close for the rest of the festival. Work continues as usual.

By the way, as I’ve mentioned in previous years, there are about fifty ways of writing Chanuka in Latin letters, but only one in Hebrew:

חנוכה

And here’s a comedy sketch I enjoyed. Comedian Elon Gold explains why Jews are better off without Christmas Trees. https://www.facebook.com/StandWithUs/videos/10154184787887689/

Whatever festival you celebrate at this time, I hope it’s happy and enjoyable and all you wish for.

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Chanuka2012MiriamIt is said that all Jewish festivals can be described in the same way:

  • They tried to get rid of us.
  • We survived.
  • Let’s eat.

Chanuka is one of those. It’s not the most important festival, but it’s fairly well known because it comes at about the same time as Christmas.

SvivonimI looked for a short explanation of Chanuka, and found one on Lisa’s beautiful blog (Blogger wouldn’t link to the post itself):

Chanukah commemorates two miracles which occurred on behalf of the people of Israel. The first miracle was the military victory of a handful of Jewish warriors against the mighty armed forces of the Syrian-Greek army. The second miracle was that while going through the ruins of the destroyed holy temple only sufficient oil to light the menorah for one day was found, yet the oil miraculously burned for eight continuous days. That is why Chanukah lasts eight nights.

SvivonimThere are three main traditions for Chanuka:

  • To light candles – one, two… up to eight on each night of the festival and sing Maoz Tzur.
  • To play with a sevivon/dreidel/spinning top.
  • To eat foodstuffs fried in oil.

The sevivon has four letters on it. One of the letters is different in Israel from sevivonim found in the rest of the world. There, the letters stand for (A) Great Miracle Happened There. Here, they stand for (A) Great Miracle Happened Here.

SvivonimThe candelabra (I see the correct word is: candelabrum) used to light the candles is called a chanukiya. In other countries it is often called a menorah. This is incorrect. The menorah has six branches and was used in the Temple. The chanukiya has eight branches (or nine). The extra one is for the shamash, the candle used to light all the others.

SvivonimFood. We Ashkenazi Jews, who migrated via Europe, eat levivot (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (doughnuts). Sephardi Jews, who migrated via Arab lands, and some via Spain and Portugal, eat other fried foods. Bimuelo, ma’akouda and mofleta are some of the names I found.

SvivonimIn London, where I grew up, I attended a Jewish primary school and a “secular” secondary school. In those days, secular secondary schools celebrated Christmas and it was impossible to opt out altogether.

I loved the tunes of the Christmas carols, but didn’t feel comfortable with all the words. When I had to sing one, solo, that fact caused me to sing it quietly, and the teacher probably thought I was nervous or didn’t have a good singing voice. I was never chosen to be in the choir.

In an art lesson in the first year, we were told to draw something for Christmas. There was an option for drawing Chanuka objects, but it wasn’t encouraged and I, of course, was always trying not to stand out. However, I had no idea what one drew for Christmas. So I looked over someone’s shoulder and tried to copy her work.

We gave each other presents and cards. That was all right, although I was always aware that it wasn’t really my festival.

My children don’t know about any of these feelings, and I’m glad of that. They missed out on the Christmas carols, but they got Chanuka songs instead.

SvivonimHappy holidays!

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Neither Here Nor There, my romance with a difference, is available from Amazon, Crooked Cat Books, Smashwords and The Book Depository.