Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Bethlehem Christmas tale.

In October of 1970 we'd planned on spending the winter on Ibiza with the rest of the hippies. But we ended up in Israel, volunteering on a kibbutz instead.

Mahn tract, gott lacht. (Loosely translated: wanna hear G-d laugh? Make plans.)

We spent that winter on Kibbutz Ga'ash, a small kibbutz about a half hour north of Tel Aviv sited on cliffs overlooking the Med. In addition to the agriculture, there was a lighting factory, still is, well known throughout Europe for its innovative designs and quality products.

I started in the fields pulling ground nuts (peanuts) out of the ground. Not easy. Then to the avocado groves, and to the lemon groves.

Standing in the middle of a grove of lemons really lets you know what your nose is for. Incredible. Nothing like lemon-scented Pledge. Nothing at all.

After a few weeks we wangled jobs in the dining room. This was the best job. Even though the zmanim (volunteers) had it relatively easy on our kibbutz (we only had to work from about 7 am to lunch, other zmanim on other kibbutzim until four), the kitchen was the best.

Our day started cleaning up after the buffet breakfast: stack the tables, chairs, hose down the tile floors, mop 'em, and squeegee the water to the troughs along the walls. Wash rinse repeat. Let dry. Set up tables and chairs for lunch. Break.

The breaks were the best, fresh baked goods out of the kitchen, hot coffee or ice cold drinks. Then, we were free, left alone until first lunch; this meant an hour and a half off. Then back to serve first lunch (there were two sittings).

And that was it, day done.

The afternoons were spent beaching, a five minute walk down the cliff, or day tripping. I'd bought a motorcycle, a little 90cc Yamaha from a departing volunteer and we'd ride off to see the country: Caesaria, Haifa, Jerusalem, Ein Gedi. Walked the Via Delarosa with pilgrims, saw Crusader graffiti, but didn't leave any of our own, climbed the snake path to Masada.

On Christmas Eve, the Kibbutz arranged for all the volunteers to go to Bethlehem, which on that night, was only accessible by special passes available only to tourists.

When we arrived at dusk, the town was packed. Every hippy in the middle east was there, many carrying four foot candles, and mumbling "far out man". Really. "Far out man."

Many were also stoned out of their minds on hash or arak, an anise flavoured drink.

The other kids there were the eighteen year olds in jeeps with machine guns. The kids in the army just keeping a watchful eye.

The midnight mass service at the Church of the Nativity was packed so the service was projected onto the outside wall of the police station. A little strip mall named, are you ready, "Manger Square" stayed open as did the post office so that you could have your postcards franked "Bethlehem, Christmas Eve". Yup, did that too.

There was a stage set up and choirs from around the world were lined up to sing. Ministers and services and speeches and sermons.

We left around two in the morning and were driven back in an open canvas topped lorry, freezing cold, but a great view.

About an hour outside the city, I looked into the pre dawn sky and saw the Star of Bethlehem poised over the town.

Big, bright, magical. A Hallmark moment. Really. No booze or hash involved.

I'm told it was Venus hanging low in the sky.

That's what I was told anyway.


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