Jaffa, Lately

Today is New Year’s Day, but you would never know it from where I’m sitting.

Here in Tel Aviv, it’s business as usual: a rainy winter Monday. Cafes and restaurants and shops are open. People go to work. There is barely even any mention of the new year in all of the work emails I’ve already gotten this morning.

After 6+ years here, I’m used to it - the “holiday season” just sort of passing by.

Sure, Hanukkah is a really big deal and we light the Hanukkiah every night. There are donuts everywhere you look for about a month. Restaurants start to offer hot sangria and people order soup. 

But Christmas and New Year’s are almost non-existent.

Almost.

In Jaffa, there is a huge Christmas tree in the main square. 

We went to a ceremony the other night to see them light it up.

The mayor of Tel Aviv (technically of “Tel Aviv - Yaffo”) was there and a lot of artists and performers who I don’t know but who sang amazing Arabic versions of all the Christmas songs I grew up listening to this time of year.

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The best part was, at around 9PM, the Muslim “call to prayer” started and one of the singers said, in Hebrew and in Arabic, “we are going to pause the ceremony until the muezzin is finished.” Once it was, she went back to singing “Jingle Bell Rock” in Arabic.

This moment sort of just passed by without any special recognition… but in my mind, it was significant. Here we are, in the Jewish state (on the 6th night of Hanukkah, no less), at a Christmas ceremony, pausing to let the Muslim prayers finish.

That’s the ideal, no? 

It was just so natural and so normal. So not a big deal. No one was even phased by it.

[Note:  I’m not naive and I know enough about the political nuances (particularly in Jaffa) to understand that there is more at play here.] 

But at least, during that moment, things seemed to work for everyone - for all three religions. There was space for everyone.

After the tree lighting ceremony, we went home to light the Hanukkiah and eat more donuts.

I got to thinking about our life in Jaffa - how it will be to raise our daughter here.

And then I remembered another story that took place one Friday night about a year ago.

We had just moved from our gentrified neighborhood in Jaffa to a new apartment on a predominantly Muslim street, a little further south.

A few days earlier, my husband, Ofir, had gone around and introduced himself to the neighbours, sitting with some of the men and smoking hookah on the stoop. To his delight, he discovered they were all fans of the same soccer team: Hapoel Tel Aviv. 

But back to that Friday night - our first in the new apartment.

Ofir, though not religious, goes to synagogue on Friday nights. It is his ritual, his meditation, his weekly practice. He takes a shower, puts on the same white linen shirt and a kippah, leaves his phone and wallet at home, and walks to shul. He doesn’t keep Shabbat. Afterwards, we might make dinner with friends, or drive to visit his grandparents, or even go out to a bar or a movie. But Ofir goes to pray each Friday night at sunset. 

He has been doing this for years and never really cared much which services he attended. He has his preferences and likes a more Orthodox setting, with separate seating for men and women, but he’s open. Usually, he opts for whatever is most convenient: the Yemenite Beit Knesset by his saba’s house in Rishon LeZion, the large Conservative temple near my parents’ home in Toronto, an Ashkenazi synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, or a hotel shul if we are traveling that weekend. It doesn’t matter.

But when we first moved to Jaffa, Ofir found a synagogue he loved and felt really connected to. We started going to high holiday services there as a family, and even did his Shabbat Khatan there the Saturday after our wedding. 

But on our first Friday in the new apartment, he didn’t consider the new 15 minute walk into his schedule and, too late, realized he wasn’t going to make it in time for Kabbalat Shabbat.

He got out of the shower a bit disgruntled and went to the bedroom, muttering something under his breath about how I made him move away from his beloved shul.

Just then, I heard a knock at the door. Well, more like loud banging accompanied by children’s voices shouting “Offiirrrrr” in an Arabic accent.

I ignored it, thinking it was a mistake. But then the banging got stronger and the shouting got louder.

OOFFFIIRRRRRRRRR!”

Uh, babe, I think someone’s calling you?”

He went outside to see what was going on.

After he didn’t come back for 15 minutes, I started to get concerned. Half an hour later, and I was really worried. We were supposed to be at a friend’s for dinner any minute.

Finally, after almost an hour, Ofir walks back in the front door with a huge smile on his face.

Nu!?!” I ask … (Israeli slag for “well” or “so”)

You will never believe what just happened,” he tells me…

I open the door, and there are 5 Arab children standing there with outstretched arms. They pull me to the synagogue down the street and tell me that I have to go pray because they need a minyan.”

Apparently,” he continues, “the kids were outside playing on the street and saw a few of the men standing around outside. When they asked them why they weren’t inside praying, they told them that they didn’t have enough people to start the prayers. So they came to get me.

And how was it?” I asked him.

Not for me. It's some kind of North African community - maybe Moroccan, maybe Tunisian, maybe Libyan... I don’t like how they sing. Next week, I’m going back to my shul in Noga.”

Emily Berg