Working in Jerusalem
If we were hard-boiled, cigar chewing cynical journalists,
this article would be a topical feature on celebrating Purim or Passover in the
Holy Land. But there's a bit of a time lag between living through the daily
happenings here, finding spare moments to scribble them down, tapping into a
library computer the thousand-plus words, mailing the printout to the far-flung
...well, you get the idea. We're not journos. We're
dogsbodies. Illiterate immigrant labour. Painters, scullery-maids, comic relief.
Think 'Manuel' in Fawlty Towers (never watched it? Hey, you must!)
and we're anxiously muddling through our year in Jerusalem, involved in the
lives of a 140 other-than-us elderly residents in the perpetual battle zone that
God labelled long ago as special.
So although it's out-of-date as you eyeball this: Merry
'How did you spend it?' you ask.
On second thoughts -– it was rather choice. So we'll tell
you. (Fade in Irving Berlin dreamin' of royalties from a white Christmas, and
cue the fragrance of reindeer roasting on an open fire, while tiny tots with
their eyes all aglow unwrap their yule logs.)
Israel does not celebrate Christmas. Sure, local
churches do their thing. And Palestinian Bethlehem normally makes a packet from
the visitors. Not this year though. Stone-throwing, lynching and bus-bombing has
rebounded to hit the Arabs fair and square in the pocket.
Which prompted us to compose the following highly original
'Oh little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie.
Kalshnikovs and Molotovs
Make tourists pass thee by.
Yet in thy dark streets burneth
The tyres of truck and jeep;
While concrete blocks and fist-sized rocks
Are plentiful -– and cheap.'
Where were we? Oh, yes -– spending Christmas Day in
Jerusalem. 'Twas Monday. In the middle of the eight days of Hannuka and the
rather uncomfortable Moslem month of daytime fasts called Ramadan. Despite all
that, a normal working day. And God has a sense of humour.
We'd decided when we first arrived here that our reason for
coming was to say -– in practical, hands-on terms -– a thank-you to Israel for
giving us the Bible. And Jesus. Sure, we take days off. Our sainthood is
limited, decidedly. Even grubby, somewhat. But the Christian holy days are work
days from choice.
And on the morning of December twentyfive we deciphered the
scrawl that told us where we were supposed to labour. (In case you didn't
know, Hebrew script is even more puzzling than the printed stuff. Right-to-left,
of course; cutely curly-whirly, like they mated Pitman's shorthand with a
musical treble clef.)
(Sure, we know that you know that the Knesset is Israel's
parliament. Which is why MKs are really MPs or vice versa. But forget all
that. Beit Knesset is something else.)
Here, in the old folks' home, just inside the tiled
entrance with its electronically controlled doors and armed security guard, is a
long, large room that does double duty as Occupational Therapy and as a centre
of worship for the residents.
Against the eastern wall is the ark, the tall cabinet housing
the priceless -– or terribly expensive, anyhow -– hand-lettered Torah scroll.
On another wall hangs a system of clock dials telling sunset, sunrise, and the
various service times. And more than half-way down the room is the curtained
division of the womens' area. Books are everywhere; Siddurs mostly -–
It's a little bit worrying, working in a place like this.
We're never totally sure we won't break some long-standing tapu and
de-consecrate everything. However, unlike the places we worked at in past years,
they're a relaxed bunch here, and we shift furniture, drag ladders and set to
with a will.
Regardless of what's going on, here is the hub of the
building. The market place of life in the Home.
The therapy people teach their crafts. Residents make
articles ranging from awful to near-professional. Staff with time to kill drift
in with a cuppa. Gossip. Greetings. The hi-volume (we'll get used to it one
day) Middle East cacophony they call conversation.
And -– because of God's sense of humour -– we are an
It takes a bundle to embarrass Israelis. They can have a
full-on row all around you, screaming, shouting, floods of tears, the whole bit.
Entirely unabashed. During or after.
Today is different. They know it's the traditional birthday
of the most famous, most influential Jew in history, and they don't know how
to speak to us.
Normally, daily encounters -– in corridors, apartments,
lifts, lobbies and dining rooms -– mean a bright 'Shalom', 'Boker tov',
'Ma nishma'. With special salutations for the holy days.
But Christmas is a no-no in Israel. Yet residents and staff
can't avoid us. God, with a twinkle in His eye, has coincidentally arranged
that residents, management and workers must pass and re-pass where we're
waving brushes and paint pots on a day when good Christian folk should be safely
out of sight, out of mind.
Even the conversations are muted. We grin at each other as
the tension mounts. These people are our friends; for unaccountable reasons they
love us, often hug us. But today it's difficult.
The wall between synagogue and main foyer where the guard
sits scanning visitors and monitoring security cameras is entirely glass. One of
the residents (we'll call him Calev; these articles can get back) pauses and
spots us toiling. Calev isn't easily cowed by public opinion.
He stands for a moment at the entrance. Catches our eye and
winks. Then, in a voice that rattles the windows and makes the guard's head
swivel, he bellows:
'Merry Christmas, George! Merry Christmas, Eileen!' And
he stomps into the synagogue, claims his favourite seat, and glares round at the
scandalised and now silent audience.
As we chorus our thanks, the reaction Calev intended to evoke
well up all around.
There are those who are shocked, angered, offended that a Jew
like Calev would stoop to use a Christian greeting in public. Others say 'Why
not?' and add their good wishes to his. There's a noisy, glorious,
tension-breaking argument where everybody shouts at once, everybody has a point
of view, everybody thoroughly enjoys themselves.
In at least one Orthodox Jewish establishment at Christmas,
God was not allowing the day that celebrates the birth of His son Jesus -–
officially 2000 years ago, surely a special anniversary -– to go unnoticed by
the very people He has chosen for Himself.
No, we don't think the year is technically correct. No, we
don't think the day is accurate either. Shepherds don't abide in the fields
by night in these icy conditions, with a gale that'd freeze first-century
thermals into person-sized icicles before you can say Adeste Fideles.
But regardless, Christmas Day nudges humanity in the ribs and
And here, quite a few of our new-found, turbulent,
challenging friends can't avoid remembering. It's surprising too, once the
ice is broken, how many 'Merry Christmasses' are wished us, how many
blessings are given us.
Okay, we dip out on the crackers and paper chains. Our
Christmas dinner is tomato, cucumber and jelly doughnuts.
And it's probably the most memorable Christmas Day we've
spent in all our combined 127 years.