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Photos: Beit HaGefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center
People dance in the streets of the mostly Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas in Haifa, Israel, for the 25th Holiday of Holidays festival, which celebrates religious diversity.

Most days, I find news about Israel completely depressing. Then along comes a story about an annual three-religion celebration there, and I’m reminded that not everyone associated with the 70-year-old nation and its neighbors is keen on in endless war.

Dina Kraft writes at the Christian Science Monitor. “In the port city of Haifa, two young art curators, one Jewish and one a Palestinian citizen of Israel, are dealing with something decidedly less fraught [than the daily news]: They are planning the logistics of an art installation that will include 88 pounds of white pepper, za’atar, sumac, and ginger.

“The piece is an exploration of what notions of ‘home’ mean, a loaded concept in a land claimed by two peoples. It is planned as a centerpiece of a new art exhibition for the Holiday of Holidays, the only event of its kind in Israel and a rare celebration of religious and cultural diversity in the fractious Middle East. The festival honors Christmas, Hanukkah, and Muslim traditions over three weekends in December in a gathering that is part block party, part intercultural artistic extravaganza. …

“Every year there is a different theme and this one is ‘the third dimension,’ an invitation to look at what happens when different cultures and identities influence each other to create something new – a hybrid space – as Yael Messer describes it. Ms. Messer is curator of the art gallery run by the Beit HaGefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center. Messer, who is Jewish, is going over plans with Haneen Abed, her deputy, a Palestinian Israeli, in their shared office. The staff of the center is made up of both Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.

“The story of the Holiday of Holidays is also the story of Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city. Haifa likes to bill itself – though not without criticism – as the country’s capital of coexistence, a place where Jewish and Arab residents live more integrated lives.

“Across the country, most Jews and Arabs live separately even in so-called mixed towns and cities, such as Haifa, where the two groups usually inhabit different neighborhoods. Social interaction is especially rare.

“But the festival brings together people from both sides of the demographic divide to dance to music performed on outdoor stages, on streets festooned with holiday lights. Arabs and Jews together follow the path of food and literary tours through the alleyways and streets of the mostly Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas, eating local offerings like hummus and baklava at food stalls and attending concerts of liturgical music at churches. The massive undertaking is organized by Beit HaGefen and funded by the city of Haifa.

“Upstairs from Messer and Ms. Abed, their colleague Hila Goshen, the cultural director of Beit HaGefen, has her laptop open to a color-coded schedule of the festival’s events.

“ ‘It seems like every year there is some war, or military operation, or suicide bombing that happens [during the planning season] and we ask, “What are we doing, bringing people together to hear music and hear each other?” ‘ says Ms. Goshen. ‘And then the festival happens and this place looks like the most normal place on earth. The magic happens.’ …

“She says the example of the gathering, brief as it is, shows this concept of shared society, a place where Arabs and Jews can live together and lead equal lives.

“ ‘I know all our issues are not being solved in this festival,’ she says. ‘But even having this kind of exposure to thinking a little bit differently is a seed we have to plant.’

“Some critics believe this is gauzy naiveté. They argue that people really come to the festival for the food, not the message of unity. But [Asaf Ron, the director of Beit HaGefen,] disagrees.

“ ‘I don’t think people come for the hummus or the knafeh,’ he says. ‘I think they come for the hope.’ ”

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here. Check out past posts about the three religions interacting as the Daughters of Abraham, here, and in the pliable time of youth, here.

And for extra inspiration, click here to learn about the Parents Circle Family Forum, a beacon of light in Israel that brings together the bereaved on both sides of the conflict who understand that ending it can only come from the ground up.

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Image: Tom McShane
The author of those lines is an unusual 10th century figure — Shmuel HaNagid, prime minister of the kingdom of Granada in Spain, head of both Granada’s Muslim army
and Andalusia’s Jewish community.

The force of history works in mysterious ways. Here is a story about how an ancient Arabic poetic tradition was preserved because Jewish poets valued it.

Benjamin Ramm reports at the BBC, “On 9 December 1499, the citizens of Granada awoke to a scene of devastation: the smouldering remains of over a million Arabic manuscripts, burnt on the orders of the Spanish Inquisition. …

“[Years before], as much of Europe languished in the Dark Ages, the Iberian peninsula was a cultural oasis, the brightest beacon of civilisation. Under the Umayyad dynasty, the caliphate of Al-Andalus stretched from Lisbon to Zaragoza, and centred on the Andalusian cities of Córdoba, Granada and Seville. From the 8th Century, the caliphate oversaw a period of extraordinary cross-cultural creativity known as La Convivencia (the Coexistence). …

“Among the Muslim poets of Al-Andalus, there was a concerted attempt to rediscover and reinvent the literary forms of Arabic, sophisticated and lyrical, rooted in the concept of fasaaha (clarity, elegance). The fire in Granada destroyed part of this heritage, but it survives in an unexpected form – in an imaginative body of Hebrew poetry, which illustrates the extent of cross-cultural exchange.

“Peter Cole, the foremost translator of Hebrew poetry from Al-Andalus, argues in his book The Dream of the Poem that a major legacy of the Moorish writers was to inspire Jewish poets to emulate their work. … The innovations were initiated in the 10th Century by Dunash Ben Labrat. …

“Controversially, Ben Labrat adopted Arabic poetic metre, and was accused of ‘destroying the holy tongue’ and ‘bringing calamity upon his people’. But the Hebrew renaissance that followed produced some of the most beautiful poetry in the language, and the period became known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Iberian Jewish culture. …

“At a time of intercommunal tension, it is tempting to idealise this Muslim-Jewish period of mutual flourishing. There are critics who argue against the notion of La Convivencia – some have called it a ‘myth.’ … Documentation about communal relations during this period is scant, [and] the extent of ‘coexistence’ continues to be a subject of passionate disputation. …

“The kingdom of Granada was the last territory to fall to the Christian Reconquest in 1492, after which Jews were forcibly converted or expelled. Saadia Ibn Danaan, a rabbi who wrote prose in Arabic and poetry in Hebrew, transmitted the tradition to North Africa.” Read more.

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Members of a family separated for 77 years were recently reunited through the wonders of the Internet. Caitlin Gibson has the story at the Washington Post.

“The five women crowded together around the kitchen table in New Jersey, their eyes fixed on a laptop screen. It was 7 a.m., and none of them had slept well the night before; they were too anxious and excited for this moment. Jess Katz logged into Skype as her mother and three sisters watched.

“A face flickered into view: their cousin, the son of a long-missing uncle, the family they thought they had lost forever in the Holocaust.

“On the other side of the screen, on the other side of the world, Evgeny Belzhitsky sat with his daughter, his granddaughter and a translator in his home on Sakhalin Island, Russia.

The eight family members smiled at each other, speechless. Then, Katz recalls, they all started to cry. …

“More than 70 years had passed since Katz’s grandfather, Abram Belz, first tried to find his younger brother, Chaim. Abram last saw Chaim in 1939, the year their family was relocated along with thousands of other Polish Jews to the Piotrków Trybunalski ghetto at the start of World War II.

“The brothers died without seeing each other again, but on April 20 their families had been joyfully reunited. …

“ ‘My grandfather, because he was the oldest son, felt an obligation to stay,’ [Katz] says. ‘But it was important to their mom that Chaim try to escape.’

“With his mother’s help, Chaim slipped through a gap in the ghetto wall and fled across the border to the Soviet Union. The family knew he made it there, Katz says, because he sent letters and packages to his family. But then the letters and packages stopped coming. …

“In April, Katz — a tech-savvy 25-year-old who works for a software company in New York City and has blogged about her family’s Jewish roots — had extra time on her hands as she recovered from minor surgery at home. She decided to take up the search.

“After decades of tedious research and letter-writing, it took Katz two weeks to find Chaim’s son.

“It was a success born of an improbable alchemy: the serendipity of social media, the generosity of helpful strangers, and access to technology that allowed distant relatives to bridge thousands of miles, a 14-hour time difference and a language barrier.” Read the read the happy ending here.

Let’s hope that technology will also help the refugee families that are getting separated today. There is nothing in the world like the pull of family.

Photo: Jess Katz
The Katz and Belzhitsky families Skype together on Passover.

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I was so happy to get this hopeful update on Kids4Peace Boston today.

“For a while last summer, as violence escalated in Israel/Palestine, the possibility of Israeli, Palestinian and US youth coming together for a Kids4Peace camp seemed pretty unlikely.

“But despite countless barriers and uncertainties, all 25 young leaders — Muslims, Christians and Jews from Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Boston — did make it to be together on that beautiful mountaintop in New Hampshire. …

“Being in the presence of one another and listening, really listening, to each other’s stories is the crucial first step in the Kids4Peace experience.

” ‘I came to Kids4Peace to try and understand the different viewpoints that each kid has. Some people don’t understand that someone with a different opinion than you can be right without making you wrong.’
~Participant from Boston

“In the midst of violence, in the midst of despair, there are people who turn towards each other rather than away. This summer 25 peace leaders and their families proved that they are the kind of people who choose to turn towards. These young leaders walked away from camp feeling empowered by and connected to others who believe, as they do, that together peace is possible.

” ‘To be a peacemaker is to hold our hands together, and to help each other not killing each other, to treat each other as humans.’ 
~Participant from Jerusalem”

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A musician and his scholar wife have created an unusual show based on their visits to Israel and Palestine and on the music and sounds they absorbed there.

Joel Brown writes in the Boston Globe: “Performer Yuri Lane grew up the son of artists in San Francisco’s then-gritty Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, which he found to be good preparation for traveling the West Bank as a Jew.

“ ‘I learned a lot about tolerance, and seeing people for who they are, not judging them,’ he says. ‘Also, some street smarts.’

“Lane began visiting Israel and the West Bank in the late 1990s, following his girlfriend, now wife, Rachel Havrelock, a religion scholar who studied on both sides of the Green Line that marks Israel’s pre-1967 borders.”

Together they have created “From Tel Aviv to Ramallah: A Beatbox Journey,” which they call a “hip-hop travelogue.”

Lane tells the Globe his travels “just kind of opened me up, just being Jewish in Israel . . . and also traveling across the Green Line and seeing a lot of similarities between Tel Aviv and Ramallah. … The night life and the jazz cafes and places where people can smoke water pipes and hang out, listening to the sounds of music, from sped-up Bedouin music to hip-hop. I really just tried to be a sponge.” More from the Globe.

By the way, you can hear Yuri’s harmonica beatboxing on YouTube. (Had to look up beatboxing: “a form of vocal percussion primarily involving the art of producing drum beats, rhythm, and musical sounds using one’s mouth, lips, tongue, and voice.”)

Photograph: The Boston Globe

 

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Last night I went to a jazz benefit for the nonprofit Kids4Peace Boston, which sponsors a summer camp and other events for children of three faiths — Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. The children are from both the United States and Jerusalem and are 11 to 12. Read more about the program here.

The fundraising event was held in the Grand Circle Gallery in Boston, which features magnificent travel posters and travel photography from the 1930s and 1940s. The entertainment was provided by Indian vocalist Annette Philip and her jazz quartet. Very impressive.

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A while back I blogged about the book groups called Daughters of Abraham, involving women from three related religions: Muslim, Jewish, Christian. I mentioned that I had met book group participant Heidi, who founded something similar for children, Kids4Peace.

Today I thought I would check back to see what Heidi’s organization has been up to, and I was led to a delightful blog on the first Kids4Peace summer camp. Here’s a taste.

“July 11, 2011 — This morning there was basketball before breakfast! The Christian children had prepared a Sunday morning service for us with the Reverend Josh Thomas, Executive Director of Kids4Peace USA, presiding. The Muslim and Jewish children had many questions after the service and the Christian children were able to answer many of them. In the afternoon, we had our choice of activities with other campers whom we hadn’t met before. Choices included archery, windsurfing, arts and crafts, drama, and woodworking.”

A different sort of project took the Kids4Peace folks to the Interfaith Youth Service Day at the Swedenborgian Church on the Hill (Beacon Hill, Boston). Heidi wrote me that Kids4Peace organized “a program geared towards children under 12 (the older kids did outdoor service projects). We created 40 toiletry kits, cards and scarves to be donated to a women and children’s shelter in Boston.” Read about it here.


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