Saturday, December 29, 2018

Christmas in Israel

The Arab Christians in Haifa take their Christmas decorations very seriously!

It feels a bit strange to write about Christmas in Israel because the majority of the population here do not celebrate it. For most of us, it is just another working day. 

It is actually quite easy to forget that so many people in the world celebrate Christmas. Especially if you do not switch on the television or go on social media. As a matter of fact, I was a bit surprised this year when I tried to make an appointment with a company in the USA. Their calendar was unexpected blocked off for two days! It was only later that I realized why.

But this does not mean that nobody celebrates Christmas here in the Holy Land. We do not have small trees decorating our take-away coffee or non-stop jingles playing in the malls. But don’t forget that the Christians in Israel have probably been celebrating Christmas long before the rest of the world.

If you want to really experience Christmas in Israel, you will have to go to the place where it all started. There are large communities of Christians in Bethlehem and Nazareth as well as other large cities such as Haifa, Jerusalem and Jaffa (Tel-Aviv).

You can read a bit more about the festivities that place in these cities at this link: Celebrating Christmas in Israel.

Hanukka, Christmas (and sometimes Ramadan too) are usually celebrated together in Haifa
Most of the Christians living today in Israel are either Christian Arabs, mixed family immigrants from the old Soviet block and Maronite Christians who fled from South Lebanon. They all practice a version of some type of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Even though there are some English-speaking Protestant churches here, they are definitely in the minority.

Ages ago, when I worked as an Au Pair in Israel, some acquaintances at a hostel in Jerusalem suggested that we attend the Midnight Mass in Bethlehem. The Ministry of Transport provides free bus rides between these two cities on Christmas Eve.

I will never forget that feeling of thundering in an ancient grey bus, circa 1950, late in the evening towards Bethlehem. Our bus driver was extremely grumpy but he lightened up a bit when some of the Swedish passengers started to sing Christmas carols.

Two Irish girls on the bus told us that their parish priest back home managed to get them seats inside the church where the Midnight Mass was to be held. The rest of us, they said, will just have to do with looking at the mass on the large screen that will be placed at the Manger Square. Since the most of us were just there for the ride, that was quite fine with us.

The Manger Square was packed with people from all over the world who came to take part in the mass. And the area surrounding the square was packed with locals who came to look at the festivities. My friend and I had a jolly time drinking coffee with them, talking politics and just taking in the atmosphere. 

On the bus back to the hostel, some of the tourists said that they did not really understood much because the entire service was in Arabic. So keep that in mind if you ever think of attending this mass in Bethlehem.

I now live with my family in the northern part of Israel. Haifa, a large harbour city, is about 20 minutes’ drive from our town. One of my friends in my pilates class mentioned that the Christmas lights were really amazing this year and that I should go and have a look. 

The top of the huge Christmas tree in the middle of the German colony in Haifa

And that is exactly what we did. Together with thousands of other Israelis! We were really lucky that we even managed to find a parking spot. Everyone (Jews, Christians and Muslims) come every year to see the lights, have something to eat and enjoy the stalls and street performances.

One may not feel that it is Christmas here in our regular day-to-day life, but the Christians here are definitely given the space and respect to celebrate their religion. 

And if you life in Jerusalem, the municipality will give you a free Christmas tree!

I hope you had a merry Christmas and a happy Hanukka!

Season’s greetings to everyone! May 2019 be a wonderful year for you!!

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Simchat Torah - Dancing with Bibles

By Roylindman - Template:Roy Lindman, CC BY-SA 3.0

We have just reached the very end of a long list of Jewish holidays. We went through RoshHaShana (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur, Sukkot (the holiday of the huts) and now finally we have reached Simchat Torah.

Simhat Torah literally means to “Rejoice in the Torah”. The Torah is the first five books in the Jewish Bible. It is sometimes called the Pentateuch by Christians which means “five scrolls”.

The rest of the Jewish Bible is made out of the stories of the prophets (Nevi'im) and the writings (Ketuvim). The T of Torah, N of Nevi'im and the K of Ketuvim give us the Tanakh. The Tanakh is known to Christians as the Old Testament.

But this is all about the Torah, so let’s go back to the beginning...

The five books of the Torah - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are known in Hebrew by the first word in every book.

Genesis is called “In the beginning” - בְּרֵאשִׁית
Exodus is called “Names” - שְׁמוֹת
Leviticus is called “Vayikra” that means "And He called" in Hebrew - וַיִּקְרָא
Numbers is called “BaMidbar” in the desert - בְּמִדְבַּר
Deuteronomy is called “Devarim” (words) - דְּבָרִים

It is believed that Moses wrote these five books but lately different authors have been suggested.

What is special about  the Torah is that these five books are still written today in the form of a scroll. An experienced scribe copies the words by hand with a quill on the parchment of a kosher animal.

Writing a new Torah scroll is quite an undertaking. The scribe has to know how to write ancient calligraphy, make the special ink and quill, prepare the parchments and then do the actual writing, without making even one mistake.

The photo below shows a section from the Aleppo Codex of the bible book Joshua 1:1.
Just look at how straight the letters are written!

Once all the parchments have been written, they are the stitched together with thread made of animal veins and attached to wooden rollers. These amazing scrolls are usually housed in a synagogue in a special ornamental cupboard known as an ark. The ark is placed on the wall that faces Jerusalem.

On a usual week, the Torah is taken from the ark and read out loud on Monday, Thursday, and twice on Shabbat.

The five books of the Torah are divided up in 54 segments called ‘parshiot”. Every week a different portion, or parshah is read until the entire scroll is read through throughout the year.  Some portions are read together in the years that are not a leap year. The size of the sections are not equal, they can be anything between 30 to 150 verses long.

Jews all over the world read the same parsha every week. So it doesn’t matter if you are in Tel Aviv,  Madrid or Australia, you will know exactly which portion should be read.

Today, on Simchat Torah day, the last verses of Deuteronomy is read and then immediately the first verses of Genesis are read.

It is a huge celebration when the readings of the year is completed. People are dancing and singing, eating and drinking. As many people as possible are given the Torah to hold and dance with. (Not women or children though).

I once asked a religious Jewish woman why women are not allowed to dance with the Torah. Until today I am not 100% sure if I agree with her answer.

She said that it is enough for women to see men dancing with the Torah. Given the heavy weight of the scroll and the repercussion of letting it fall - I am personally okay with only letting the men dance with the scroll.

What I really like about Simhat Torah is that the connects the body and mind. The happiness of coming to the end of a long year of reading and study spills out into joyous dancing.

We do not just live in our minds but also in our bodies.

And sometimes, when you are really happy, you just have to DANCE!!

If you'd like to receive my occasional "Letter from Israel" in your email box, how about signing up at the box in the top-right corner. I am a fierce hater of spam myself and I promise that I only send out these emails VERY occasionally - though I really should be a bit less lazy.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Walking on aquaducts

The old Roman aquaduct near Caesarea

I sometimes get jealous when I see what cool stuff people from other countries get to do.
They can easily visit world famous museums, ski in the snow every winter or climb really
high mountains.

Or there are these amazing trails such as the Appalachian trail or the Camino de Santiago
were you can just lose yourself in nature. (In Israel we lose ourselves on the couches under
the air conditioning.)
But you know what they do not have?

Ancient crumbling down aquaducts!

Well maybe they do have an old aquaduct or two crumbing away somewhere in the middle of


But is the general public allowed to walk on them?  Not that your general Israeli actually ask if

they are allowed to walk anywhere…we just clamber on top and look at the view.

If you stand still for long enough you do not just see the old rocks held together with Roman

invented mortar. You start to zoom back into the past and actually feel the ancient history of
this ancient country.
In Israel we have quite a few ancient aquaducts built during the Roman empire. They are dotted all over the place but the aquaduct in Caesarea is the one that I walked on. It runs parallel to the beach and its arches give shade and shelter to the beachgoers, nargilla smokers and other partygoers.

The way to the beach is through the arches

One often forgets that Israel is such an ancient place because it has such a progressive, startup-y vibe. But then you find yourself swimming in the Mediterranean sea and notice a strange squarish-looking rock. Only to realize a bit later that you are actually swimming in a small ancient harbour. The weird rock is actually an ancient building stone.

Or you can find yourself on top of an ancient aquaduct looking down at the swimmers in the sea on the one side, and a group of Arab guys hanging out and smoking the nargilla on the other side.
Chilling out next to the aquaduct and making long shadows

Everyday Israel has a 'new' feel to it. There is constant building everywhere and skyscrapers are mushrooming all over the place. It is nothing at all like that ‘medieval’ feeling that what one experiences in the old Europeans cites.

I might be really wrong but I personally think that at least 70% of the buildings here in
Israel have been built during the last 70 years. Since Israel gained independence in 1948.

BUT...and this is a really HUGE BBUUUTTTTT, there is a huge proportion of ancient architecture in Israel.

These are all still in use today:

The Western Wall in Jerusalem is 2000+ years old

The Armenian quarter in Jerusalem. The earliest churches there were built during the 5th century and the rest of the place around the 12th century, so they have been around for nearly 2000 years.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchere in Jerusalem was built around 326 AD, making it 1,692

years old.
The Al-Aqsa mosque on Temple Mount was built around 705 AD, making it 1,313 years old.

The Ashkenazi Ari synagogue in Tsfat was built in the late 16th century, making it around
500 years old.
The Al-Jazzar mosque in Akko was built around 1781, making it 237 years old.

This is just a small list, and it is not taking in account all the other historical ruins that is found all over Israel such as the fortress at Masada and the ancient ports of Caesarea and Yaffa, Megiddo, Zippori etc. etc. Wow, there are so many, I think I should write another blog post about the famous ruins in Israel...

A LOT of the ruins found here in Israel were buildings originally built by the Romans during the time period of 63 BC to 313 AC when they were the current power in charge.They were
great engineers and one can still see a lot of their architecture that was built nearly 2000 years ago here in Israel.

The Jews and the Romans did not get along and everything blew up in 70 AD. The Second Temple was destroyed and the Jews were killed or sold into the slavery. Jerusalem was razed to the ground and Judea was renamed Palaestinia.

And now here we are in 2018 and the Jews are restoring and preserving the architecture of their old enemies. How times have changed, hey?
Flowers growing on top of the aquaduct

One has an amazing view from the top of an aquaduct. On the one side you see people swimming in the setting sun in the Mediterranean and on the other side is the parking lot. And some Arabs chilling out on a picnic blanket...

And then there is the ancient view back into the past. It is more of a feeling actually. The feeling that you get when you realize that the stones under your feet where placed with extreme accuracy by a builder more than a thousand years ago.

A builder who most probably also had a family that he loved. Friends who he liked to hang out with. I am sure that he must have enjoyed the sea breeze in the late afternoon just I did. 

Sun going down over the Mediterranean

As I stood there quietly in the breeze looking over the Mediterranean, a mother and young boy suddenly called me from below and asked how they could get up too. I pointed them in the right direction and then started to make my way down.

The view is great from the top of an aquaduct and it was time to give someone else a turn.


If you'd like to receive my occasional "Letter from Israel" in your email box, how about signing up at the box in the top-right corner. I am a fierce hater of spam myself and I promise that I only send out these emails VERY occasionally - though I really should be a bit less lazy.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Netta Barzilay - The Israeli singer who had us all clucking

Life in Israel is never boring. The other day I was walking along a street in Tel Aviv and suddenly a guy next to me just chirped like some kind of robot chicken.

And of course I didn’t freak out, or even floated the “WTF!” thought bubble above my head. I knew exactly what was going on. The guy was merely singing from Netta Barzilay’s song “Toy”.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Middle Eastern Sesame Cookies

Middle Eastern Sesame Cookies

Having a decent cookie to dip in your cup of coffee or tea has always been part of my childhood. And now I am the one that has to fill the cookie tins.... :)

The taste of my cookies is usually influenced by my Western upbringing but I have been living in Israel for a while now, so I have decided to experiment with honey and sesame seeds. These two ingredients are as Middle Eastern (and Mediterranean!) as it gets and are often found in sweet treats.

You can find the entire recipe here: Middle Estern Sesame Cookies

I encourage you to try the recipe. It is quite easy, the ingredients are not difficult to get hold of AND it is really delicious!

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Yaron's remember garden

We had just experienced another tense and emotional period here in Israel. 

Once again we commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day and remembered the fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. And then the sorrow slowly turned into joy as we celebrated 70 years of independence. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

“Ashes and dust” - How Israelis commemorate the Holocaust

This evening, we will start to commemorate the Holocaust here in Israel.  All the movie theatres and restaurants and other places of entertainment will be closed and only movies and documentaries about the Holocaust will be shown on the local television stations.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Sarah Aaronsohn - the 100 year-old heroine of Zichron Yaakov

Wikipedia Public domain
Well, actually she has been around for more than a 100 years now. Sarah was born on the fifth of January 1890 and in 1917 died from the gunshot wounds of an attempted suicide. Our common home town, Zichron Yaakov, recently held the 100-year old anniversary of her death.

In the suicide note she wrote:
“I no longer have the strength to suffer, and it would be better for me to kill myself than to be tortured under their bloodied hands.”

Sunday, October 15, 2017

After the holidays

We enjoy our bagels a lot here in Israel - the diet can wait until after the next holiday!

Me and my fellow English-speaking Israelis belong to this secret Facebook group where we share crazy, awesome and weird stuff about life in Israel.

Some of the posts are really cool and heart-warming but other posts (especially from the newbie immigrants) just make me go from one face-palm to the next.

Chocolate pie with pomegranates and a chocolate sauce

Chocolate pie with pomegranates and a chocolate sauce

I often make this chocolate pie for my family for something sweet for the weekend. It is quick to prepare and I usually have the ingredients already at home. So usually no quick dash to the supermarket is needed :)