By Chloe Newman, Masa Israel Teaching Fellow in Ashdod

While this holiday season didn’t resemble the traditions of my youth, it was still very special for me. With my new friends and communities here in Israel, I took part in multi-cultural celebrations across the country. The saying here goes that Israelis will take any excuse to celebrate, eat, drink, and be merry with the ones they love…and especially without the bombardment of superficial, commercial holiday stresses, why not?

In past years on Chanukah, my family and I lit candles and exchanged gifts. I remember dreidels, latkes, and chocolate gelt sales and displays becoming more and more aggressive in our local markets. This year, I celebrated in Israel, where all of the holidays seem much less commercialized than back home. Even a holiday like Chanukah seemed hardly present (no pun intended), save for the three days off from school and the overflowing abundance of freshly baked jelly donuts. When I did spend one special evening sharing a holiday meal with a soldier friend and her family, it far exceeded America’s month (or more) of in-your-face advertisements and pressures for holiday shopping.

Just after Christmas Day, I caught a train to Haifa. There I was able to see the last day of the annual “Holiday of Holiday’s” celebration, where, for two weeks, festivities and special events are throughout the city’s museums, restaurants, and streets. Although there were many ticketed events available, I spent my weekend visiting the public celebrations and sites, exploring the beautiful landscape, architecture, and little pockets of art and nature scattered across the city’s mountainside.

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A Christmas tree and a menorah in Haifa’s German Colony

Though Israel is most often recognized for its Jewish population, in Haifa I found a plethora of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim symbols, not to mention the breathtaking Baha’i Gardens. When I came upon the “UNESCO Square for Tolerance and Peace,” I could feel what a powerful and extraordinary promotion the site is for the peaceful coexistence of these overlapping religious populations.

alt="unesco square tolerance peace haifa israel"UNESCO Square for Tolerance and Peace

Haifa’s multi-culturalism was also apparent as I moseyed through the large crowds of people, ducked in and out of shops, and watched the festival’s daily mid-afternoon parade of soldiers, students, and Santas. Every day, the streets were filled with the smoke and smells of cooked treats, many of which I didn’t recognize. Upon discovering a few colorful stands of popcorn and cotton candy, it seemed all too American in the midst of the now commonplace falafel and humus vendors.

alt="haifa holiday of holidays parade"Holiday of Holidays Parade in Haifa’s German Colony

The “Holiday of Holidays” usually spans across Chanukah, Id al-Adha, and Christmas, although my friends and I visited Tel-Aviv for the latter. I had not expected much to be seen; I was, after all, living in the Jewish State. There was the occasional decorated window, a few pedestrians with Santa hats on…and that was about it. As we found out, Christmas festivities are mostly reserved for New Year’s Eve, which Israelis call “Sylvester.” The history of this day is complex for Jews, but the opportunity for a celebration was certainly seized in Tel-Aviv.

So, my friends and I returned here for New Year’s Eve, and the bars and clubs were overflowing. We journeyed in and out of different venues, and when midnight hit, we all turned to each other expecting the announcement. No one else looked up. No one seemed to notice the time, except for us. We shrugged and laughed, and agreed that this New Year’s (as opposed to that of the Jewish calendar) was truly just an excuse to party.

Reflecting on these holidays, I realize that I did miss seeing my family and old friends, to uphold the little traditions we had. Yet, I’m hopeful that this year’s experience of Israeli holiday culture is having a positive influence on me, one I can bring with me when I return. I am fascinated by this particular mix of secular and religious celebrations, and the many coexisting cultures within Israel. It certainly sparks my curiosity about what other internationally significant days of gratitude for family, friends, and “excuses to party” I’ve been missing out on.

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The Shrine of the Bab (golden dome) in the Bahai Gardens, with holiday lights lining the German Colony behind

To read more about Chloe’s adventures in Israel, check out her blog.

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