Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas in Jerusalem

YMCA lobby

I had been planning to celebrate Christmas one way or another, the way a lot of Israeli Jews do in Jerusalem - by going to church.  I began my evening at the YMCA.  They had an evening of scripture readings and Christmas carols in the auditorium, which was filled to capacity with Jewish Israelis.  I asked the woman next to me "you think there are any Christians here?"  I think I saw two, besides the pastor and the Arab director of the YMCA.


 It was sweet and nostalgic for me to listen to the familiar carols and it brought me back to a funny place - as a teenager I went to a religious Jewish high school.  Some of the girls in our class started to sing Christmas carols during recess in our classroom, which immediately brought the principal to our class to tell us to immediately stop.  He went out only to find us resuming our singing.


If you didn't know what date it was, you'd never tell it was Christmas.  There are no Santa Clauses on every street corner, there are no Christmas lights in the streets, or decorating homes and public buildings.  No Christmas carols in the malls that get on your nerves by the time Christmas arrives.  Nothing.  So this is why Israelis flock to celebrate that one day we can get to hear beautiful spiritual music.  With no kitsch.

After the YMCA I headed over to the old city because I wanted to make my way over the Church of the Redeemer which is a German Lutheran church.  They were having mass at 10:30.  A friend called.  She was my classmate in the ultra-orthodox Jewish school we went to in the Bronx, Beth Jacob.  And she wanted to join me.


"Sure!  Why not!  I was at the Y last year and I loved the carols"

"Great.  It'll be nice to have company" and I laughed out loud in the street thinking of us two wayward former ultra-orthodox school kids. 

I met her at Mamilla.  She had trouble finding parking.

"Looks like I'm not the only one who's thinking of going to church tonight."


We walked quickly to the church finding a crowd already there.  Again - full of Israeli Jews.  There was a guy with a santa cap on.


"I want to know.  Where are my gifts."

He laughed and his friend said - "here" and dished out chocolate to my friend and I.

"Wow!  This was easy.  We should have wished for a million dollars!" said my friend.

Someone said that once you're in the church, you can't leave until the service ends.

"You Vill Stay und you vill like it" I said to whoever was listening.  Nothing like German punctuality imposed on others.

The church opened its doors and it was difficult to find seating.  We finally found two seats in the back and the service began pretty much on time.  We were told not to take photos during the service.

Church of the Redeemer

The service began ---

"In the beginning God created the heavens in the earth..."

Genesis.  And the German pastor was saying this in the original Hebrew.  I looked at my friend.

"I think Hitler's turning over in his grave, isn't he?"

He continued by welcoming us Jews into their church.

Yup, the old bastard's really turning over in his grave - several times.

If I hadn't been looking at who was speaking, it could have been an old chassidic Jew quoting Genesis in Hebrew.  It was surreal listening to the Old Testament in church.

My friend felt bad for the pastor.

"Could you imagine.  We're invading this place on their holiest day. Could you just imagine synagogues opening up their doors to non-Jews during Yom Kippur with their cell phones and cameras?"

The church's "police" came over to admonish anyone they caught taking photos.  Luckily I took a few before and after the service.

Candles were lit by every aisle.  The place was just glowing.  It was beautiful.  The singing began  - in English and Hebrew.  We sang along to the familiar songs in English, while they were being sung in German.\

The whole mass took a little over an hour, but it was a very spiritual moment for the two of us.  I felt good being able to flow and feel comfortable enough with another religion - enough to join in during their holiest day.  And the bells that rang from the church after the service made the evening more magical than it already had been for us.


anne said...

Great pictures! It would be so lovely to have a Christmas without all the extra "junk" like we do here in the states. When I lived in Jerusalem, I went to church at the Y!

Ahavah-Shim'on said...

Soooo you are hungry for music? Which are your favourites?

ohh and I wouldn't feel too sorry for the Pastor, I suspect he would be feeling absolutely tickled pink you and your friend were there....

... and I am loving your idea of opening up the Synagogues for non-Jews on Yom Kippur and indeed any other of the Jewish holidays/fasts...

guess its not going to be that easy though is it?

Marni said...


Longtime reader - infrequent poster. Anyways, I was just curious to know why so many Israeli Jews attend Church on Christmas. Is it kitsch and traveling to India? I assume the ones attending church are probably the same ones who avoid fasting and attending synogogue on Yom Kippur....

jerusalemgypsy said...


Yes, your assumptions are probably correct.

Sara said...

This was certainly the most interesting post I have read about Christmas services in a long time! I enjoyed your take on it all.