A single mum and her toddler, standing by the light of the Hanukkiah (a sweet potato with holes – we couldn’t afford anything else) singing the Hanukkah songs. In almost every other house in the county of Shropshire, North-West England, families were celebrating Christmas.
I went to Christmas parties, sent, and received Christmas cards, and always felt loved by friends and colleagues. But when celebrating my culture, I was alone.
Two years later, and I am playing Hanukkah songs on my violin with my kibbutz band at the Hanukkah party with dozens of kibbutz Hannaton families, including my husband and our five-year old. It is a proud and happy moment.
A few nights before, I helped our kibbutz director set up a small Hanukkah party for our Arab neighbors, welcoming them to celebrate with us, and to explain to them what Hanukkah was all about. We ate doughnuts together and spent time talking. It was one of many evenings we’ve shared together. We’re getting to know each other, to laugh with each other, and to understand each other better.
The next week, at the Anthroposophic school where I teach English literature, the staff and students decided to hold a celebration called ‘HanuChristmas’ for the first year ever, to make sure every student and teacher at the school felt a part of the holiday joy. So we lit a Hanukkiah and decorated a Christmas tree, sang Christmas songs and some of our Christian Arab students talked about the importance of Christmas to them. The week before we had had an assembly on the importance of sharing light, the Hanukkah light, to all people through kindness and love, which had ended with vegan doughnuts for everyone. And many students and teachers had been knitting hats for months, to give every single student and teacher a Hanukkah/Christmas present of a beanie hat, to help us brave these few weeks of Israeli winter weather. In the spirit of the holiday, warm punch was served afterwards too (non-alcoholic of course).
Fast forward a week or so, and I am standing by the enormous Christmas tree in Nazareth, celebrating Christmas with our Christian Arab friends, in our peace group ‘Standing Together’ which has thousands of members, Arab and Israeli, Christian, Muslim and Jewish, working tirelessly to bring peace and equality to our country. We heard English Christmas songs sung in Arabic, and joined in, happy to be a part of their happiness, happy to be invited, happy to be included. We had a tour of the beautiful city of Nazareth, which is one of the three most important Christian cities in the world, along with Bethlehem and Jerusalem, yet which does not receive enough government support to be able to properly showcase its history to the millions and millions worldwide who come to visit. I spoke with the director of the Palestinian Folklore Museum, to see how we can start to change that. And on their balcony, we sat and enjoyed delicious food and drink (our toddler must have eaten/taken home around fifty chocolate Santas!) and enjoyed the atmosphere of Christmas in Nazareth. Then we were treated to the most wonderful music by ‘The Hallways’. I closed my eyes and breathed in the magical music. I couldn’t believe its beauty. Afterwards, we spoke to the band who have promised to come and perform for us in our pub in Hannaton. Hopefully, they will soon be performing all over the country. I have only heard such a beautiful voice once or twice in my lifetime despite having been immersed in music of all different kinds.
The ease of sharing cultures, the ease of loving other cultures, but never being alone.
I understand now how this is one of the principles which drives my husband in all the peace work he does. He is the treasurer and officer for external relations for the Forum of peace NGOs in Israel and he always tells Arabs and Jews alike: I love my country, all the Holy Land. I feel it belongs to me. But I know you also love your country, and feel it belongs to you. I am willing to give up some of my country so you can have yours if you give up some of yours so I can have mine.
He does not believe, as I do, in one shared state, but two. And I can understand why. He wants to ‘come home’ to his culture, his traditions. He never again wants to be part of a minority, as we both were in England.
But this difference does not really matter. What is vitally important is we both believe in a shared peace, and know it is possible, because we live it every single day.
There are shared events in the North all the time – and not just events about peace. Music events, celebrations, parties, all sorts of things. I and a friend are about to start a shared space for writers to join weekly, and to share our art with each other.
That’s the thing about the Israeli North. We already have a shared society. At the moment my husband and I are helping a psychologist and psychotherapist who is doing research into transpersonal peace work in Israel. She lives in Tel Aviv. She has no idea what is happening in the North. The rest of Israel could learn a great deal from us.
The idea of ‘the North’ also has a personal resonance for me. In England when we talk about the North, we mean Manchester or Liverpool. My parents were desperate for me to get married to a Jewish Doctor from Manchester. They thought that would make me happy.
Thank goodness I didn’t. Thank goodness I found my home.