So, on Xmas eve, DRB-Debra Reed Blank, said to me, "Do you want to go to midnight mass at Latrun?" Latrun, is a monastery on the road to Tel Aviv, established in the 1890's (and then rebuilt in the 1920's after they were expelled by the Turks, I think) by Trappists monks complete with monks chanting(quietly, I imagine, as these monks live with an oath of silence in their daily lives), a vineyard and supposedly lovely gardens. I thought, hmm, midnight mass, monks, could be interesting. The weather had been getting colder, though, and the thought of the drive back and forth and the lateness had me a little less than thrilled. Jessica suggested Abu Gosh, which is slightly closer and is a Christian Arab village to where I've only been to eat humous but which she said is a popular place for midnight mass on xmas eve.
I asked Ira what he thought - he wasn't sure about the whole thing, just didn't think he wanted to go. We thought about it over the next few hours and as the day progressed, I decided that I was curious to go somewhere. All those years in the Catholic Ward known as Carroll Gardens and I had never gone, while Ralph and Lisa and Debra and Arnie were regulars at St. Mary Star of the Sea and what's the name of the big church on Hoyt? We even lived on Summit St for the first 2 years of our marriage, home to St Stephens, and witnessed the Saint ( I thought Theresa but maybe Mary?) being carried about the neighborhood, knife to her heart, well dressed men in tuxedos walking behind her as she blessed the streets of the neighborhood - she came out 2x a year, Easter and ?, and one time of the year it was happy and the other time dirgelike (maybe on Easter) and people would gather (after the gun salute) and look as she was carried on her byre and say things like "she looks good this year."
DRB called back and said she had read that we could go to Eyn Karem, which is closer and at the edge of the Jerusalem Forest, just west of us. They had a choir which would sing at 11:30 but it didn't look like they did a mass. I called Lisa Smith to invite her and after a moment's thought, she said yes and then, "what should we wear?"
During the early evening, amid dinner preparations for all, I kindly making new food so that those who didn't want to eat Shabbat leftovers, like me, had new choices - quinoa with sauteed veggies and marinated tofu - we discussed when to leave, 10:30ish, should we reconsider driving down to Latrun, no, how cold would it be, cold, and did the kids want to come, especially Natan, yes but he had an early test the next day - prep for Eng bagruyot - so, no.
At 9:30ish, DRB called. She pronounced extreme fatigue. I'd like to say that both Ira and I had extreme doubts as to whether or not she'd make it to the alarmingly late, for her that is, hour of 11:30. DRB is known as an early to bed kind of girl and the fact that she'd suggested midnight mass was nothing short of amazing. Earlier in the day I'd asked her if she'd be awake and she assured me that she'd be fine. She was more concerned with me as the driver. I, who ordinarily go to bed hours after she does. As well, I had been suspicious that she wanted to go back to her room that evening - had invited her to dinner but she wanted to relax at her place. Fine, I thought, but I could imagine her room, cozily overheated with Jess's heater that we had lent her, her feet tucked under a blanket, all alone and quiet with the paper and a cup of tea and felt that the chances of her making it out awake were slim. I was right, as was Arnie (her husband who had cast his doubts by phone earlier that day) and Boaz (her friend who's here right now and since he doesn't read my blog may never find out that she didn't go - I told her to fool him and gave her all the info it the next day) and Ira, who also had doubted her ability to make it past 9:00pm.
Lisa Smith called. I told her we were down one, by our leader, the DRB, and she laughed but told me that she was still on. We agreed to a 10:40 pickup on the corner of Naftali and Yehuda and she hung up to go dig up her gotkes/long undies to wear for the occasion. Ira decided to go. We bundled up and left the house, not before I ran back in to get a hat, which was a good thing to do. After picking up Lisa, we headed for Eyn Karem. Our directions - it's been a while since I've been there and it's dark and all that - were a typically Israeli affair. Make a left at the monster slide (in Kiryat Ha'yovel), head to the gas station and make a right and then an immediate left onto a road that looks like nothing and head down the mountain until you reach the village. We arrived, parked the car and walked over to St John the Baptist. It's so lovely and old - you walk through a gate into a center courtyard, clearly built that way for security purposes of another time and it was quiet - no sense of xmas. We walked the stairs up to the church and I noticed my first sign of xmas, a wreathy bit of spangly stuff over the main doorway. Upon entering the church, there they were, 2 modest xmas trees all lit up and twinkling brightly. We took seats in one of the few remaining pews towards the back of the sanctuary, huddling close together for warmth in the space. I smiled at a few familiar faces - Jess's friend Daniel Schwartz, a favorite of Gabe's for his ability to play initial baseball, Tania with her non-Jewish boyfriend, James, both Brits, and a few other familiar looking faces, probably, as Ellen Shaw puts it, Jewish face #303 and #904. The crowd looks almost entirely Jewish. I can't see who's sitting up front but the chatter is a mix of languages and most do not seem to be members of the Church.
It's a lovely space with a pleasantly old and somewhat rundown feel and the traditional church architectural style. Sitting in the pews, it's easy to imagine being in Kane St and we discuss how Akiva would like it. Here's some historical info about the church,
"The Church of St. John the Baptist was rebuilt by the Crusaders, but after they left the Holy Land the sanctuary was either destroyed or fell into complete disrepair. A few centuries later, the Franciscan Order purchased the site and work began on its reconstruction. Most of the church was restored in 1674 with the aid of the Spanish royal family (their coat-of-arms is located above the entrance inside the sanctuary). Many of the paintings are originals, drawn by Spanish artists and donated by Spanish kings. Diverse blue-and-white tiles considered to be Spanish in style line the enormous square pillars and cover parts of the walls. Further work on the church was carried out in the nineteenth century, again with Spanish assistance. This included a new marble altar for the grotto, donated by Queen Isabella II of Spain."
We sat and chatted until about 11:45pm when the choir started singing. We looked up into the choir loft and I caught a hint of a nun passing through but ultimately we couldn't see the singers. DRB had said that it was to be an Israeli choir but they worked the traditional songs nicely, including one or two selections in Latin. I was reminded of how Ira's mother, Pearl, loved xmas carols. She grew up singing them in NYC public schools and she loved on xmas eve, to put on WPIX with the yule log program (Remember that? A constantly running loop of carols with the image of a burning yule log on your tv screen? For some years, it disappeared but was brought back by public outcry), and iron shirts, a specialty service of hers that has gone the way of most specialty services. At about 12:00am exactly, in paraded a group of worshippers, singing along with the choristers - a few nuns with candles, some younger looking men - perhaps priests in training, and then a 3 very fancily dressed priests in white and gold, the last one holding a fancy pillow upon which a very small baby doll rested.
They ascended to the altar area and began the service. The main priest, Father Fergus, began with welcoming remarks. He welcomed all of us, saying that each year he is overwhelmed and pleased by the numbers of Israelis who come to see the service. He commented that the rituals are not "yours" the service is not one that "you can understand," that "you sit quietly and respectfully," this is no small feat on the part of Israelis, "that he speaks to other colleagues about this every year, that basically, it amazes and pleases him. Ira and Lisa and I looked at each other and smiled when he was finished. It was just so lovely and so warm and so ecumenical. He told us that now he was about to do some things in Italian but that he would tell us when to get up and when to sit down. With that, he told us to rise and start the service. We stood quietly for a while and after a bit of back and forth of ritual activities, we sat down again for his homily, his xmas speech to us. DRB later commented that she's sure that he chose to do this early on in the service before to many of us left (people did leave quietly at different points during the beginning of the service) and I think that could make sense because his sermon was so geared to the crowd - he opened with a scientific discussion of the big bang theory which was so cool for a priest, I thought, and then discussed the fact that not everything can be explained by the big bang theory (remeniscent of all those who heard Ira's d'var torah of last year about the same topic), he went on to discuss the xmas story and then finished with some words of peace (never a bad idea in this part of the world). When he was done, I looked at my companions and said, "that was great, I don't need to hear anymore." It should be added that we were all a bit snoozy by that point - combination of the hour, sometime near 1:00am and the cold which makes you huddle and sit stiffly and is tiring as well.
We exited the church, heading back out into the cold night, the lights of the mountaintops of the Jerusalem hills winking in the distance. We couldn't get how welcoming the priest was. He wasn't proslytizing, he was encouraging us to feel comfortable in his church, to share his enjoyment of the holiday and its meaning BUT on a level that was comfortable for us. That is, we could watch from close, respectfully, and appreciate that we were all there to enjoy things that are meaningful to him on xmas - rebirth, peace, spirtuality and a real belief in ecumenicsm among peoples of all religions and beliefs. And you know, it really worked. I didn't want to convert, I didn't want to start celebrating xmas but I was glad that I taken the time to remember that this was a day celebrated by many all over the world and that what has always made J'lem a special place is it's importance to people of all religions. That's a good thing and it's too often forgotten in the more fundamentalist Jerusalem of today.
I'm a girl that grew up with a father who was a Rabbi on Long Island, NY, a bastion of Christian as well as conservative sensibilities and values. My father took part in inter-faith groups in the area, maintaining good relationships with local clergypeople in his area. I will never forget the Passover seder that we hosted a priest and a nun. It was grand fun and I couldn't believe that they both could read Hebrew! Who'd've thunk it. When I returned to my modern Orthodox day school and reported to my school mates and teacher about it, I was greeted with a certain amount of incredulousness and concern over whether or not I had let them pour/touch the wine at the seder. Most expressed interest but there were those few who didn't and I remember wondering why they didn't see how great it was to share customs, learn about what other's do and all that jazz. I was only in 7th grade but I never forgot the experience.
Being here during Dec was interesting. There was NO feeling of xmas, none, and this the country where Jesus is said to have been born. Truly, I wasn't disturbed by it, Israel is a Jewish country and the focus was on Hannukah and even that was a soft focus. The best part was the lack of commercial push during the weeks building up to Hannukah. We really didn't think of it at all. I would imagine that for those celebrating xmas here - and I did like the article in the paper which let Christians in the area know that free xmas trees were available for pickup courtesy of the municipality and that there would be free bus service to Bethlehem on xmas eve and day - that it's probably both frustrating and heartening to have their xmas uninterrupted by commercial exhortations to spend their money and focus on everything that the holiday is not about. As an American, I guess I missed some of the hullaballoo, the lights and action, the sense of bonhommie on the street so missing from daily NYC life. In the end, I'm glad that I chose to mark xmas, or at least investigate xmas, at the source, in a local church that made me feel very good about my choice to attend their celebration.
For anyone interested, I include an exerpt below from an article that the Jerusalem Post printed last week with a quote by Father Fergus about midnight mass at his church. DRB told me that she saw 2 interesting op eds about why Jews should go to midnight mass and why they shouldn't , but I scoured JPost.com and haaretz.com and couldn't find them on either site. I told DRB all about mass the next day when we went to an excellent exhibit at the Israel Museum that was the perfect counterpoint to the previous night's excitement. It was called Bread: Daily and Divine, and it discussed at great length, bread - the importance of it and it's use it rituals all over the world. There was a great video at one point of bread and wine rituals in the Christian world - DRB was disappointed that we hadn't stayed to see how they did communion in this church - she and I both liked the Orthodox church methods, which meant spooning out a serving of wine and bread (pretty graphic really, when you think of it) into the mouths of the waiting supplicant. But it reminded me of the previous night and the good feeling that I had when I left the service.
From an article in the Jerusalem Post from last week, preceeding xmas.
"But in smaller parishes, quieter ceremonies occur on Christmas Eve. Franciscan Father Fergus Clarke is guardian of St. John in the Mountains Church, built at the traditional site of John the Baptist's birth, and on Christmas commemorates the Magnificat - the Virgin Mary's extended quote in Luke 1.
"Since we're a very small community," he says, "it's extraordinary that on Christmas Eve our church is full of mostly Jewish people. For example, last year I counted only eight Christians present. Since the church is very small, holding about 110 people seated, when I say it was 'full,' I mean standing room only.
"These Jewish people arrive as early as 11:15 for midnight mass. What is really so edifying is that the Jews, predominately young, stand in complete reverence and silence for almost an hour and half. If you compare it to other churches you wouldn't see such reverence and patience.
"Remember, the mass is celebrated in a foreign language for them, since we celebrate in Italian. The whole ritual is foreign to them, apart from the homily, which is given in English.
"But they come from as far away as Tel Aviv, and many call in advance to be sure they'll be here on time. They come because of some sense of mystery or awe of the divine that comes from the ritual, the music, their memories - transmitted from their parents, perhaps. For us it's a very uplifting ceremony because of their presence and attitude."
Fergus says the Israeli presence contributes to the "peace on earth, goodwill toward men" that Luke says the angels proclaimed at Jesus's birth.
"This year we are having an Israeli choir sing at midnight mass, and two years ago we had a Southern Baptist from Alabama sing a solo," he said."
Beth Steinberg, reporting from J'lem.
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