If you’re scratching your head wondering what I just wrote in Hebrew as the title of this blog post, it’s quite simple actually: “Merry Christmas from Israel.” I’m not doing much today for Christmas actually – I am taking advantage of this day off by getting some finals work done before I leave next week – but there have been lots of celebrations for Christmas here in Israel, contrary to popular belief. I might even go as far to say that, at least in Haifa, there have seemed to be more celebrations for Christmas than there were for Hanukkah. This might also be because Hanukkah came so early this year.
In Haifa, there is this big month-long festival called “Holiday of Holidays.” It is a month long celebration during the month of December in Haifa that celebrates the co-existence of all religions, cultures, and holidays celebrated throughout Israel. It is a beautiful festival. As we have been nearing Christmas Day, more of the celebrations have been focused specifically around Christmas. Last Thursday, as part of the festival, they closed up the road through the German Colony leading up to the Baha’i Gardens for a big celebration in the street. It really was a lot of fun. There were lots of Santas (on stilts), musicians, Christmas trees, Christmas lights, food vendors, artists, face painters, you name it! It was quite a celebration! It just goes to show how diverse Israel is. It’s not only a homeland for the Jews, it’s the home for almost all worldwide religions and cultures. That’s the beauty of this country.
Even my university has had many celebrations for us students for Christmas. I have mentioned this in a previous blog post before – one of the things I love about Israeli culture is how they love to celebrate life. Any excuse to celebrate! It’s really quite fun and actually puts things into perspective big time when talking about this region.
So while the past few days have seemed to be centered around Christmas, it hasn’t stopped me from traveling like I always do these past few weeks. I have had a lot of fun visiting historical cities such as Caesarea, Akko, and Metula. It’s one thing to learn about and see pictures of places where history happened, but it’s another thing to actually be able to visit these areas immediately after learning about them in class. I have found this so fascinating. I really can’t think of many times back home in America – especially in Florida – where I can easily just visit these historical sites after learning about them. I have visited ancient historical sites from thousands of years ago to historical wartime sites from 30-40 years ago – and they both have the same type of impact on me. It’s incredible!
Each place you visit here in Israel offers something completely different than the other. It’s never the same thing over and over again and that’s also the beauty with this country.
For example: Akko. Akko is one of the most historical cities in Israel, but today, as silly as this sounds, what they are most known for is their hummus! I was told before I went that Akko had the best hummus in the entire world, but I said that I had to taste it to believe it. And everyone was right. I don’t know what it is, but for some reason, the hummus just tastes different in Akko than anywhere else… and it is life changing. Just trust me on this one! I ate so much hummus and pita, it’s not even funny! Now I’m craving some Akko hummus as I am writing this.
Even as I have been traveling to these historical cities, since my weekends are so long, I somehow keep making my way to the very modern city of Tel Aviv during my weekend adventures. Just this past weekend, I went down to Tel Aviv to have dinner with some cousins of mine who I haven’t seen in years! It was so great to see them again. They literally had just landed, put their stuff in their hotel room, and then met me for dinner at the Port of Tel Aviv. I had a really great time with them.
Then the week before that, I was in Tel Aviv for the entire weekend spending time with my cousin Lauren, who as I have mentioned before, now lives in Tel Aviv since she made aliyah to Israel. We had fun bracing the “snowpocalypse” in Israel. I’m sure many people have seen the images on television of all the snow that landed in Jerusalem. I actually tried to make my way into Jerusalem when it happened just to see the snow, but since Jerusalem doesn’t know how to operate itself when it snows, I couldn’t make my way in. They stopped all the buses from going in or out of the city due to the bad weather conditions.
The best part about the “snowpocalypse,” however, is that they were covering this like a hurricane had just made landfall. It was quite hilarious to see all the hoo-rah. As one Israeli person put it: “If the biggest news story to come out of Israel this week was about snow, then you know it was a good week for us.” Now even with the “balagan” of the snow in Jerusalem (it is still snowing two weeks later by the way), I do have to hand it to them – nothing like this has ever happened in Israel before, let alone Jerusalem. They’re not really equipped with what to do since this is such a rare occurrence. And it’s not just snowing in Jerusalem, it’s snowing basically everywhere else but Tel Aviv and Haifa. Go figure… When I was in Tel Aviv though, it was hailing, which gave many people the false illusion that it was actually snowing. It’s also probably a good thing that my plans to go into Jerusalem didn’t work out then because I would have been stuck inside of Jerusalem… with no power… in the freezing cold… for a few days before I could actually get out of there through means of public transportation. Many of my friends who were actually able to make it in to Jerusalem were stuck in the city for a few days much longer than expected because of the weather conditions and transportation shut-downs. Some were even scrambling to find a place to stay over-night as they were stuck. It was hard for them, especially with all of the electricity being knocked out across the entire city.
Anyway, I am approaching my final week here in Israel and I can’t believe how much time has flown by. I have been having the most amazing time here. I am so grateful for everything and have just been trying to make the most of my time here. While I am sad that my time here in Israel is almost coming to a close, I am looking forward to seeing all of my friends and family when I get back. I wish I could just bring them all here to Israel with me. It’s not easy being this far away from all of them for this long. Even though I have become some comfortable here in Israel and I love it so much, my friends and family are the one thing that’s missing.
I want to end this blog post with something that I have been doing during my time here that I have not talked about in any previous blog post yet. Many of us international students have been volunteering each week throughout the city of Haifa. It’s our way of giving back to the community for welcoming us with open arms. Each Wednesday, my friend Danni and I go down to a place called Helping Hands Retirement Center. You maybe be reading this thinking “I have heard of this place before somehow.” That’s because they were recently in the news for recently hosting the “Miss Holocaust Survivor” beauty pageant. Helping Hands is a wonderful organization and retirement center for impoverished Holocaust survivors and is helped led by an amazing heroine named Chava. Helping out in any way that we could was really a rewarding experience. Danni and I spent most of our time helping to prepare the Wednesday night dinner for the residents of Helping Hands, but we also knew that every little bit of help meant so much to them.
Once the residents would arrive for dinner, we would take the time to talk with some of them. It should be worth noting, however, that many of them only speak Hebrew, German, or Russian. Speaking a little bit of Hebrew with them was great practice for me in terms of feeling more confident with my Hebrew, but I am far from perfect though. Luckily, Danni is very experienced in over seven languages. She is from the Netherlands and I call her “Rosetta Stone.” Had she not been there volunteering with me, then I don’t know how I would have survived with the language barrier!
There is one Holocaust Survivor that I built a friendship with and her name is Shula. I don’t have a picture with Shula, but to give you an idea of what she looks like, she is an older splitting image of Velma from “Scooby Doo.” She was the only person at Helping Hands who knew how to speak English and she learned so by watching Hollywood movies all of her life. Whenever we would talk, her eyes would light up as she would talk about the magic of cinema and explain in great detail what her favorite parts of “Gone with the Wind” are. She was exposed to movies before she was sent to the concentration camps, but she told me that cinema is what got her through those tough times as a young girl. It gave her something to look forward to once she got out of there and she always fantasized about the movies she saw while she was in the camps, even coming up with film ideas in her head to distract her from the hell she was living in.
While Danni and I thought our roles were small, we knew that it was us being there and doing the small things – like preparing dinner and talking with the residents – that made all the big difference for them. For both of us, volunteering at Helping Hands was a very rewarding experience and one that we will never forget. Being inside those walls with these unsung heroes is a reminder of why the existence of the state of Israel is so important in today’s world. Each and every single one of them are brave individuals and it was an honor to meet them.
On that note, here are a few more photos from my adventures over the past few weeks. I hope you will enjoy them:
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