Christmas under siege
I came to Israel from New York in 1977 to attend the One-Year Program at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. When the year ended, I wasn’t ready to leave. So I decided to finish my degree in the Holy Land, rather than return to my college in the U.S.
I did not know that this would set the course of my personal history.
Prior to my arrival, I had always been staunchly pro-Israel, and the 1976 Entebbe raid only served to strengthen my pride in the Jewish state. But I hadn’t really considered myself a Zionist. I didn’t think all Jews had to move to Israel. Nor had I ever believed that I would become one of the Hebrew-speaking hora-dancers I had imagined Israelis to be.
Actually living in Israel (where the only hora-dancing I ever encountered was at weddings, right before the DJ blasted the hall with disco music) changed all that. Without much serious thought or particular attention — other than to the plethora of hunky soldiers as far as the eye could see — I had turned into someone who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. It was no longer necessary for me to contemplate whether I was a Zionist; I was an Israeli.
This did not mean I was fully accepted as one by the “natives,” however. And during that period, an immigrant to Israel had to prove he was worthy of the title. Possessing an ID card and passport was only a first step in the audition process. Israel was not America, after all. And lots of Jews who tried to make it in their ancient homeland preferred to return to their more recent historical dwellings, where creature comforts were better met and cultural norms more familiar.
Still, anyone opting for “downward mobility” (to borrow my father’s phrase) was also looked at as a bit odd. What about Israel, I was often asked, could possibly be preferable to the U.S.?
Because there wasn’t, and still isn’t, a simple answer to that question, I developed a series of one-liners. Among them was that in Israel I never have to know when it’s Christmas.
Indeed, one of the things I found most surprising about the Jewish state was that it was Jewish.
This meant that the public holidays celebrated were all ours. It meant that children were in costume on Purim, not Halloween. It meant that gifts were given on Passover or Hanukkah, not Christmas. And it meant that all of us were on the same festive page on the same dates.