O Little Town of Bethlehem - another article in the Ordinary Potato series

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Copyright 2001 by Leonard Grossman

Most of my childhood was in non Jewish neighborhoods in Chicago. Going to Hebrew school was definitely not the norm in those places. I sometimes had to fight off (or run from -actually the preferred method) bullies to get to the bus. Still, I was fascinated by the larger, Christian world that surrounded me. It would have been easy for me to isolate myself, but I chose not to. I think I became an expert in decorating trees and learning carols in self defense.

In the late 60's, Gin and Gordon, two close friends from Northern Illinois University, invited me to spend Christmas with their family in DeKalb. She led the choir and he played the organ at their late night Christmas service. Over the years, the ritual has changed. Their parents have passed away, their tiny children now have children, and they are almost old enough to have children, themselves. The big meal has been moved from Christmas afternoon to Christmas eve, so the children can spend the day rotating between extended families.

They changed churches once or twice. I could do a whole essay just on the power of the different crucifixes we gazed upon over the years, but through it all, we have always gone to church with them somewhere on Christmas eve. Sometimes at midnight, sometimes earlier, once in a tiny frame church with a white steeple and a mechanical organ, in the rolling farm fields. Sometimes in a modern church with an anatomically correct Jesus in frozen ice (some kind of polymer, I am sure) powerfully staring down upon us. There were short Lutheran carol services, and elaborate (and lengthy) Episcopalian services like this year, with pageantry and ritual (and carols) [The length of our Yom Kippur services was good preparation for this lengthy mid-night experience]. (And, of course, I am somewhat (if not, well) versed on Jewish interpretations of Isaiah which reach different conclusions with regard to the language that Christians use to foretell the coming of Christ.)

I confess the mystery of Jesus eludes me. Although it is something I cannot intellectually comprehend, during those Christmas services, whether through homely, corny contemporary sermons, based on the pastor's recent "real life" experiences, or more erudite intellectual or theological based presentations, I begin to comprehend the power of the metaphor, even though I cannot and, indeed, would not, choose to cross over into belief.

But through all the services over the years, there was one constant. The quiet, reverential love for a little town where the miracle happened. Where it all began, so it is said.

This year alone, one carol after another, pointed to the call of Bethlehem. Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, kings, are all drawn there. The very stars point the way.

I do not mean to magnify the importance of Bethlehem in those sermons and in those services. It is not something with which you are clobbered over the head. The meaning of Bethlehem, is simply something that permeates the air. It is not the almost physical longing, aching to return, like the longing for Jerusalem in Judaism, but it is there. By tampering with that, Sharon has made Arafat a hero again, and nothing has been gained.

Still, for more than 30 years I have shared that experience. I have had trouble explaining that to many of my Jewish friends. It is not a "Jewish" thing to do - to go to church at all, much less on Christmas eve. What is a nice Jewish boy doing in a place like that? they seem to ask.

But, Oh how I wish Sharon had made that choice, even a few times in his many years. I wish he had attended services in a mosque from time to time as well.

He understands power. He understands the symbols of power and domination. Though he did not actually enter the mosques in Jerusalem, his action was to tread upon and grind his heel in the history and symbolism of a great religion. He may of thought he was proving that a Jew, particularly that Jew, could go any where - establishing Israel's - or at least his, dominion over the holy places.

He may have thought this week he was trampling on the power of Arafat.. demonstrating who was boss..

But in both cases he was trifling with something much more powerful - the heartfelt connections of people to places, connections built through history, legend, song and prayer.

Palestinians and Arabs who deny the connection of Judaism to Jerusalem and Israel make the same mistake... It is not the actual historical connection that they confront, but two thousand years of prayer, longing and hope. And that applies to secular as well as religious Jews. The literal, historical, argument is irrelevant. If some mad genius 2000 years ago had created a fake literature complete with history and artifacts, it would make no difference, by now the Jewish longing for Jerusalem and the area surrounding it is practically built into our DNA. It does not depend on logical underpinnings.

So too, Muslim attraction to the Edge of Heaven goes back a long way. The fact that Jerusalem was never a capital for anyone since the second Temple was destroyed is irrelevant. Silhouettes of the mosques of Jerusalem decorate everything from towels to mirrors to calendars to wall murals in Arab and Palestinian homes and businesses throughout the world. The connection is felt.

There must be solutions, but they will not come from grinding ones heels as one would grind out a smoldering cigarette. Yes, Sharon sent a signal a year and a half ago - but it was not the one he wanted. It was not his power that he demonstrated, quite frankly that exists without demonstration. It was his contempt for the heartfelt beliefs and feelings of a huge number of people.. If he did not know it would serve as the spark for violence, perhaps he has led too sheltered a life.

If he did not realize that his actions this week would reverberate, even though unspoken, in thousands of churches all over the world last night, he is a fool. In one fell swoop, he has generated sympathy for Arafat, and therefore, for the Palestinian cause, among millions who have no natural common cause with them. He has resurrected Arafat from the nearly irrelevant.

He does not believe, so it is said, that it was religious discrimination, because, Arafat is not Christian. And indeed, it was not religious discrmination. It was a political act. But the Christian message subtly calls the world, not only Christians, to Bethlehem on Christmas eve, not literally but certainly on an emotional and spiritual level. My objection to his conduct is not based on any love for Arafat, but on a recognition that his conduct sends the wrong message to those who do care about religious issues and those who are infused with a lifetime of memory and association.

Sharon, a secular Jew, has not learned to value the heartfelt yearnings of those who surround him. I wonder, sometimes if he has really integrated Jewish longing as well. Too bad he didn't live in my neighborhood. Too bad he did not know Gordon and Gin.

Sharon's conduct this week will reverberate over time in ways he cannot imagine.

This article first appeared in on the MidEastWeb Dialog mailing list.
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