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Christmas Day parade in Bethlehem
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Christmas day in Bethlehem with Israeli soldiers on the rooftops
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Palestinians watching the parade
photo by Rhonda Spivak

more of the Christmas day parade
photo by Rhonda Spivak


by Rhonda Spivak, Dec 12, 2018

Somewhere in my basement there is a 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. My year studying at Hebrew U ( from 1985-1986) was a very formative year in my life, in that it 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 to get to the Arab market we simply walked from Mount Scopus  through Arab East Jerusalem to the Old City's Damascus Gate 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 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


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, and offered 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. 


One of my most unique memories of my year at Hebrew University was going to Bethlehem on Christmas day. It all came about by chance when one day myself and another student went to explore the construction of the new Mennonite University not far from Mount Scopus.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 Christmas day 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 chicken dinner at local restaurant.


The photos I to

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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