A Sydney Jewish Boy’s Christmas in Bethlehem

December 28, 2010 by Ben Weiss
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Sipping a Turkish coffee in the heart of Tel Aviv early last week, I pondered how a secular Jew from Australia might experience Christmas in a country where a public celebration of such a holiday is considered taboo.  The instinctive answer lay 93 kilometres away, in the primordial town of Bethlehem (Hebrew meaning “The House of Bread”), the heralded birthplace of King David and one Jesus of Nazareth, and home to the oldest continuous Christian community in the world.

Sign at the border checkpoint warning Israelis not to enter

So on a crisp Christmas day morning I bussed from Tel Aviv and arrived at the Damascus Gate outside the Old City walls of Jerusalem and boarded Arab Bus 21A, en route to Bethlehem.  The 30 minute bus journey took me straight into the heart of this ancient and vibrant nerve centre of 30,000 inhabitants.  An Australian Jew, I was able to travel freely into the Palestinian Territories, bypassing the travel restrictions currently in place on Israeli passport holders, and joined the flock of 90,000 tourists and pilgrims who made the journey to attend this year’s Christmas festivities.

The Birthplace of Jesus?

The 14 pointed Silver Star, beneath the altar in the Church of the Nativity, marks the spot believed to be the Birthplace of Jesus

From the bus station, you criss-cross through narrow alleyways which snake around old dwellings and marketers, the smell of cumin intoxicating all the senses, to arrive at the Manger Square and the iconic church that is built over Christianity’s most revered site.

The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem is believed to have been built over the cave where tradition marks that Jesus was born.  Built in the 4th century, some 300 years after his time of birth, a cynic might postulate that given the most widely accepted of the gospels (Mark and John) place Jesus’s birthplace at Nazareth, is there even sufficient evidence to elevate this site to sacred status?  Such a debate is better left to the religious zealots, as once you enter the Church through the Door of Humility, it is hard

not to be captivated by the vast array of treasures and antiquities preserved here, handed down by some of history’s most venerable leaders (all of whom were convinced of this site’s historical significance).

Wishful Thinking at the enchanted Milk Grotto

Ben Weiss the Colombian Sisters in Bethlehem at the Milk Grotto

The second stop was to Mary’s Milk Grotto, the site where it is believed that a droplet of Mary’s breast milk fell and turned the entire ground white.   Today, the religious faithful are known to scrape fragments from the stones in the grotto to mix it in a mother’s milk to enhance fertility, and to place stones under the bed of expecting mothers.  Such fanciful notions are hard to reconcile in my proof seeking mind, but I could not avoid the temptation to make a wish at the stone grotto hoping it would bring some form of fortune.

A Security Fence or a Giant Easel of Artistic Expression?

Graffiti artists leaving their mark on the West Bank Security Fence

There has been a loud argument sounded that the West Bank barrier, a 400-plus mile-long mix of cement walls, is illegal, oppressive and a form of apartheid.  A contra view, having witnessed the streams of tourist’s seamlessly crossing the fence into the West Bank (the 1.45 million people that visited Bethlehem alone this year was 60% up on last year), the overflowing coffee shops and souvenir stores, is that it is business as usual in the West Bank.

Grafitti art

With easy tourism, co-operation between the Israeli and Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces at the highest levels, an absence of terror attacks originating from the West Bank (incidentally, there were 30 rockets fired into Israel from Gaza last week alone), there is great room for optimism that a form of stable “peace” and recognition can be achieved between people from 2 great religions who co-existed for centuries and have more in common than that which divides them.

The Return to the Holy Land

Our return to Israel through 2 security checkpoints, lands you at the site of Rachel’s Tomb, the burial place of the great prophetess and grand daughter-in-law of Abraham, the 3rd holiest site in Judaism.

Crossing the border to Israel through the Security Fence

Crossing the border to Israel through the Security Fence

Riding the bus back to Jerusalem, I reflected on a surreal outing which will loom large in my thoughts and memory for some time.  And why was that? Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that my new reality was in stark contrast to the picture of abject hopelessness, created and fanned by world media regarding the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and which admittedly I had previously carried around in my head too).

Galvanised from the day’s events, I concluded the day with a religious and geopolitical discussion with the Colombian sisters (whom I met on the journey to Bethlehem) on the patio of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.   A pair of devout Catholics, these ladies consider Israel their 2nd home, argue vehemently for its right to exist, and emphasised the strength of the ties between Israel and Colombia, (a little known fact is that Israel and Colombia have an open border for tourism and Israel offers Colombians the longest stay without a visa of any country in the world).

The great English thinker, John Milton, said it correctly “Evil news rides post, while good news bates”.  Today, there was only good news to report and long and far may these positive words stretch.  Far from being the leper of the international world, Israel has diplomatic ties with 154 countries, and if a Jew and a pair of religious Catholics can cross the border together into a Muslim controlled area on Christmas day, share a falafel inside an Arab market and a drink overlooking the old city of Jerusalem, talking world affairs freely and openly, a Utopian solution to this border problem may be more conceivable than the world media may have us all believe.

If there is even an outside chance that my humble wish at Mary’s Milk Grotto will bear fruit in 2011, that is worth drinking to over this holiday season…L’Chayim and Bottom’s up.

Wishing you a happy, healthy and successful 2011 and beyond.


7 Responses to “A Sydney Jewish Boy’s Christmas in Bethlehem”
  1. Let’s hope and pray that one day Christians, Arabs and Jews will accept and live together in peace and harmony in their common Holy Land belonging to the three Great Religions and transformed into a truly democratic, multiculural unitary state where concrete walls are relics of the past.

  2. Emes says:

    Ben, it’s wonderful that you have such a profound interest in ecumenical endeavours. However, I hope that you also spent some quality time at the sites in the land of Israel that are holy to your own heritage…

  3. Richard Joachim says:

    Delightful story. More good news stories like this please. It’s not going to be politicians who eventually make peace, it will be ordinary people who have simply had enough of the nonsense.

  4. Lynne Newington says:

    I reserve my thoughts on the site where droplets of Mary’s milk fell and turned the ground white out of respect, but what was of interest was the site of Mary’s Mikva proudly exhibited and claimed by the Franciscans.

  5. Kon says:

    Just for the record, Ben, it does not take a religious zealot, but just a cursory reading or the New Testament, to see that in fact Jesus was never, except where it was mistakenly thought, considered to be born in Nazareth. Both Matthew and Luke, both accepted as true gospels, clearlly have Jesus born in Bethlehem. John and Mark do not have birth narratives as such.

  6. Adam Subtractem says:

    A great article and nice reflection for anyone who wishes to visit a truly amazing country. The Holy Land, and its peoples showing compassion and peaceful trade and tourism. Perhaps Cr Peters from the Marrickville council can read this article and or better still visit Israel, and realise that her ridiculous motion to boycott Israel is in fact beyond stupid and that she in fact holds herself out to the world as an anti-Semite. Thanks for a lovely read Mr Weiss. A

  7. jakes says:

    What a great article. Perhaps it should be published in the general press, although I suspect that the SMH would shudder at the thought.

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