Christmas at Hebrew U: An Interesting Biproduct Of Freedom Of Religion In Israel

Six months ago, I made aliyah to the world’s only Jewish state. I was most looking forward to the holidays, where I could actually feel like part of the majority rather than that random weirdo who isn’t plugged into the Christmas spirit because my Modern Orthodox parents always told me it was not for me. When they saw me doing something christmassy, they would act like the time my dad caught me smoking pot when I was a teenager. Actually, worse than that, because when he caught me smoking pot he just told me to just try not to make it a habit. Christmas, on the other hand, was totally off-limits. It was part of their attempt to hold on to our Jewish identity while we were still in the┬ádiaspora.

But everyone else was still doing it, and I was left out because Christmas didn’t include me.

Meanwhile, in Israel, I was totally looking forward to the normalization of Chanukah and other Jewish holidays. I wasn’t disappointed. The entire city of Jerusalem was lit up with chanukkiahs, even many street lamps were draped in chanukkiah-shaped lights. Public candle-lightings in the major squares in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were the norm. Between classes a group of us stood outside our classroom, lit candles and passed out gelt. I felt more at home then than I had ever felt during my entire time in Israel. Here I was, surrounded by people raised with the same traditions as I was, despite living on opposite corners of the world, coming together to keep the flame alive.

When I walked into Hebrew U in the week preceding Chanukah, I saw this:

Photo Credit: Odelia Setbon

I was a bit confused. I was used to seeing Christmas and Chanukah decorations side by side even in Canada and the USA. Granted, Chanukah was always treated like an afterthought but it was still present.

This campus was a Christmas Wonderland in its entirety. I was so amazed that we Jews had gone so out of our way to accommodate our Christian minority that we forgot about ourselves.

Maybe I’m over thinking it, I decided. Maybe it’s all in my head. Maybe decorations aren’t an Israeli or Jewish thing. Maybe some crazy old bearded Hasidic Rabbi told them that Chanukah decorations violate tzniut, or modesty, that is a cornerstone of Jewish law.

Until some of my Hebrew U friends started posting about it with the same confusion and disappointment that I felt, and they were met with a chorus of agreement and support. And the entire city of Jerusalem was lit up with Chanukah decorations like these:

View of a typical street in Jerusalem

View of a typical government office in Jerusalem

View of a typical square in Jerusalem

I thought it was a bit strange because the campus contrasted so much with what I saw around me, in the city. I was really happy that we were trying to accommodate minorities, but I wondered what happened to the Jewish pride.

I thought I’d give the student union the benefit of the doubt. I sent the student union a message and received this reply:

Translation: Hi Lex, Last week we marked Christmas on campus, and so there were the relevant decorations for the holiday. Over the course of the next week, we will celebrate Chanukah, and all over campus there will be tons of decorations for the holiday, also candlelighting and passing out sufganiyot to many. Happy holiday!

Nice! I thought. So they gave Christmas its time to shine and then they will give Chanukah its time.

Then, on Chanukah, I walked onto campus and saw this:

Picture taken on the 5th night, but I can assure you that it looked exactly the same the preceding four nights.

You wouldn’t know there was anything going on here at all. Decorations? What decorations?

I walked around campus and didn’t see a thing, aside from some Christmas stuff in the library, with a booth manned by people in Santa hats. Christmas ornaments were on the table.

The posts from my Hebrew U friends intensified. They began sending messages to the student union asking them why there aren’t any decorations. Eventually, I sent them a message and did not receive a response.

On Night 5, there was a candle lighting in the library funded and facilitated by Chabad, not the Student Union.

The Chanukkiah was covered in Christmas-like decorations. Sufganiyot were given out. These were, I think, from the Student Union.

Was it in the Forum, the main area of campus where the Christmas tree was? Nope.

It was off to the side, shoved aside, like Jews who feel their holiday has to be celebrated in secret. Some old habits die hard.

On my friends posts, people began posting pictures of Christmas and Chanukah decorations side by side on some of Israel’s more conservative university campuses, such as Bar Ilan and Ariel, the latter of which is over the Green Line.

“Maybe they’re trying to not offend or provoke our large Arab population, who find the Jewish presence here offensive,” a commenter on one of my friends posts suggested.

“But if we stop showing our Jewish pride to not offend the Arabs,” another commenter answered, “then the Arabs have won.”

Another friend of mine posted: “Jewish leftists are to blame. They see religion as a primitive thing, but tolerance of other religions as important. It’s similar to the fact that the same people in the U.S. who are part of what they call the “war on Christmas” also believe in extra accommodations for Ramadan. ‘They’ can be “primitive,” but ‘we’ are better than that. But saying that out loud is racist. Just as they see Zionism itself as a form of primitive 19th century nationalism and open borders as the future, they also are unhappy that Israel is a Jewish state because they see the religion as primitive, especially given [the rabbinate] who they are represented by.”

Regardless of the reason, what is clear is that the younger generation is so eager to please and accommodate minorities that they lose themselves in the process.

Israelis are open, giving people who go out of their way to help the underdog and are even willing to sacrifice for it.

I would love to see this kind of Christmas spirit with Chanukah spirit alongside it, which it did not. Instead, it reminded me of the stifling majority I left behind in order to feel the normalization of Judaism that permeated this holiday in so many other ways.

I feel there is a happy medium where accommodation is concerned. Some people have the idea that because all around the city there are mostly Chanukah decorations, then we should compensate at the university and over-represent the “underdog”. However, in my view, side-by-side coexistence, as I see on my campus every day, should be an ideal worth striving for.



Lex is a trained comedy actor who is Montreal's second-favourite export aside from poutine.

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