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Bethlehem Christmas Parade, Dec. 24 1985
Photo by Rhonda Spivak

Bethlehem-centre of town. Israeli soldiers stand on top of roofs during parade
Photo by Rhonda Spivak

Grandfather and grandson watch parade, Bethelehem 1985
Photo by Rhonda Spivak

Participant in parade
Photo by Rhonda Spivak


by Rhonda Spivak, posted December 10, 2014 but written 2 years ago



The other day when I was sorting through things in my basement I came across the brown wool floor rug that I purchased in the Arab market in the Old City for my dorm room at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in the fall of 1985.



As I unrolled it, I was flooded with memories of a year that was so formative in my life—and one which fostered my fascination with Jerusalem, and my interest in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.




I remember the day I bought that carpet, when I went with another Canadian student and an Israeli to the Arab market, to choose it. What is so remarkable in retrospect is that we simply walked from Mount Scopus (near where the former Regency Hotel which is now a Dan Hotel is) through Arab East Jerusalem to Damascus Gate of the Old City without thinking twice about it—it is a route that very few Israeli Jews would walk today, but at the time we had no fear in meandering about on this route. It was a very different time then, a good two years before the first intifada broke out, and we had no hesitation in exploring the sights and sounds of East Jerusalem.




Sometimes we would walk that route on a Saturday, and after exploring the narrow alleyways of Jerusalem's Old City we'd end up along with many other Israelis at Abu Shukary, the best place for a plate of hummus in the Arab quarter, or alternatively, we’d buy baklava dripping with honey in the market. I remember being introduced to tall glasses of Sahlav (or Sahlab in Arabic), a thick milk-based drink traditionally made with orchid tubers, orange blossom or rose water, cinnamon, nuts and raisins. (I liked it at first but, it grew on me less and less each time I drank it.)




One weekend, when I was walking our route with a group of students—Americans and Israelis, we heard some noise coming out of an Arab home and we stopped for a moment to see what was happening. There was a wedding celebration, which it turned out had spilled over onto the street, and we were invited to celebrate. I have a memory of going into the home and being offered all sorts of food. We stayed for a while and then made our way to the Jewish quarter of the Old City, where we saw a giant Chanukiah being lit near the Western Wall for Chanukah. All of this in a mere afternoon.


Some weekends, if we rented a car, we’d spend the better part of the weekend touring around in the West Bank.




I have memories of having small cups of Turkish coffee in the shops near Salah-Al Din, the main artery of Arab East Jerusalem which leads to Damascus gate. I took a bus from the East Jerusalem bus station to somewhere in the West bank with a male blonde Jewish Canadian friend. We were the only foreigners on the bus which was made up of Palestinian Arab men—people stared at us a little, but were friendly on the whole. Often when the two of us, both Diaspora Canadian Jews, travelled together, we were mistaken for German tourists. Some weekends, if we rented a car, we'd spend the better part of the weekend touring around in the West Bank because it was essentially right at our doorstep.



I remember a trip we took to the impressive Solomonès pools, three large water reservoirs near Bethlehem, made of rock and masonry, which were used to collect spring and rain water from the surrounding valleys to Jerusalem. They were designed in such a way that the water could travel to Jerusalem by force of gravity. The pools, which we walked around, were part of an ancient waterway supplying water to the fortress and palace of Herod the great at Herodion, and may have been conceived by Pontuis Pilate, some say. I have never been back to see these pools again since after the intifadas.



The Palestinian city of Jericho, an oasis in the dessert with its huge palm trees, is also near Hebrew University, and became part of our stomping grounds when we had a car. I think we must have seen the remnants of the old walls of Jericho, although I have no direct recollection. But what I do remember was there was a restaurant we always stopped at for fruit juice and great Middle Eastern food, the name of which escaped me long ago.



Places I visited easily in 1985 -1986 so near Hebrew University are not ones I have ever gotten back to, since the political climate has often not been so calm as it seemed to be back then. If it were not for my year at Hebrew U, I would never have had some of these adventures.



I have managed to get to Jericho briefly in 2011-which is part of the Palestinian Authority. My Palestinian driver, who thought I was a Christian tourist, wanted to take me to see the walls of the Old City of Jericho-(about 5000 years old) in the heat of an August day at about 45 degrees Celsius. I lasted about 10 minutes before getting a good bout of heat stroke. It will probably be a good 5000 years before I am back to Jericho again in August. What I did notice on the drive was that one of the Palestinian refugee camps on the outskirts of Jericho had undergone a facelift. And I remember the sight of the Palestinian soldiers on the road as we entered the city of Jericho.



At a shop in Jericho in 2011, I noticed that they still had a stock of T-shirts from the days of the Signing of the Oslo Accords (some 18 years ago)-when Jericho was the first city to come under Palestinian Authority. Chances are that if they haven't been sold in the last 18 years they won't be sold now. I looked at a T-shirt as I was intrigued to see that the Palestinians had invested in marketing peace T-shirts. But the shirt wasn't Palestinian made. The labels said "Made in Israel."



One of my most unique memories of my year at Hebrew University was going to Bethlehem on Christmas. It all came about when one day myself and another student went to explore the construction of the new Mennonite University not far from Mount Scopus and we met a Palestinian from Bethlehem who was Christian and part of a local Palestinian police force, under the Israelis, I assume. His name was Foo Foo (I assumed that was a nickname and have no idea what his real name was). He flashed us a badge and invited us to Bethlehem for Christmas day to see the parade. He promised us that he could get us through the checkpoints so we didn't have to stand in line forever with all the other tourists trying to enter that day. We invited a couple of other overseas students from Hebrew U and we went.



It was a very magical day in Bethlehem. The city was to be included in an international zone under the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. Jordan annexed the city in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and Israel captured it in the 1967 Six Day War. Our day in Bethlehem for Christmas was in 1986, 9 years before Bethlehem began being governed by the Palestinian National Authority.



I visited Manger Square, saw the church of the Nativity , passed the stores all decked out with Christmas souvenirs, mostly of olive wood, walked by the vendors selling trays of sweets ,and watched the long and winding parade for hours, hearing the musical bands, the sounds of the trumpets blasting, and seeing the happy children all around. Virtually the whole town was outside lining the streets, or watching the parade form balconies. I don't remember having any fear of being there and afterward our police friend "Foo-Foo" and his side kick, a Palestinian man named Jamal from Ramallah, treated us to a dinner at local restaurant.




The photos I took that day some 25 years ago captured the Israeli soldiers who were staked out on the roof tops of the buildings along the parade route, looking down at the throngs of people watching the parade.




I don't know whether the parade exists anymore in Bethlehem but, I do know that the number of Christians living in Bethlehem is vastly reduced. Like everywhere else in the Muslim world, Christians are leaving as a result of pressure from the Moslem majority which has left them feeling increasingly uncomfortable, and threatened.




Looking back at my photos, I realize that it may be a long time again before I get back again to Bethlehem to see its Christmas celebrations again.



As for another year at Hebrew U, I'd go back in a minute if I could. It was an amazing experience.


Not that I remember completing too many academic courses, mind you. Just being there was enough.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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