I came to Israel from New York in 1977 to attend the One-Year Program at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. When the year ended, I wasn’t ready to leave. So I decided to finish my degree in the Holy Land, rather than return to my college in the U.S.
I did not know that this would set the course of my personal history.
Prior to my arrival, I had always been staunchly pro-Israel, and the 1976 Entebbe raid only served to strengthen my pride in the Jewish state. But I hadn’t really considered myself a Zionist. I didn’t think all Jews had to move to Israel. Nor had I ever believed that I would become one of the Hebrew-speaking hora-dancers I had imagined Israelis to be.
Actually living in Israel (where the only hora-dancing I ever encountered was at weddings, right before the DJ blasted the hall with disco music) changed all that. Without much serious thought or particular attention — other than to the plethora of hunky soldiers as far as the eye could see — I had turned into someone who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. It was no longer necessary for me to contemplate whether I was a Zionist; I was an Israeli.
This did not mean I was fully accepted as one by the “natives,” however. And during that period, an immigrant to Israel had to prove he was worthy of the title. Possessing an ID card and passport was only a first step in the audition process. Israel was not America, after all. And lots of Jews who tried to make it in their ancient homeland preferred to return to their more recent historical dwellings, where creature comforts were better met and cultural norms more familiar.
Still, anyone opting for “downward mobility” (to borrow my father’s phrase) was also looked at as a bit odd. What about Israel, I was often asked, could possibly be preferable to the U.S.?
Because there wasn’t, and still isn’t, a simple answer to that question, I developed a series of one-liners. Among them was that in Israel I never have to know when it’s Christmas.
Indeed, one of the things I found most surprising about the Jewish state was that it was Jewish.
This meant that the public holidays celebrated were all ours. It meant that children were in costume on Purim, not Halloween. It meant that gifts were given on Passover or Hanukkah, not Christmas. And it meant that all of us were on the same festive page on the same dates.
Don’t get me wrong. Christmas never bothered me. I was not offended by the fact that I was in a minority. I knew all the words and harmonies to all the Christmas carols; I sang them at school and loved hearing them on the radio. I watched gleefully as the huge tree at Rockefeller Center was hoisted up and decorated, and shopped for gifts in the snow, with Santas ringing their bells outside of every department store.
It was what it was, and I took it totally, even happily, for granted.
I even laughed when two of my college friends expressed sadness that I didn’t celebrate Christmas. “Don’t pity me,” I said. “I’ve got plenty of my own holidays to worry about.”
It was only when I noticed its absence during my first Decembers in Israel that I felt relieved, in the same way as when the fridge stops buzzing, and you suddenly realize that it had been an annoyance.
Today, so many decades later, Christmas is under assault, even in America, of all places. Who could have predicted that it would become a symbol of “offense” to those who do not celebrate it? Who could have understood that the fall of the shah of Iran and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 would be the turning point for Christians the world over?
As Jews, we always knew what that was like, though we didn’t expect that the worst anti-Semitism was going to arise from the marriage of radical Islam to the Left (a subject on which Andrew C. McCarthy wrote a chilling book).
Little did we all grasp that Jews and Christians would become lumped together as a common enemy, all because of the values represented by the Ten Commandments.
My delight at living in a Jewish state, where my roots, religion, and nationality are all at peace with one another, put me in a kind of bubble. Yes, we are surrounded by Arabs bent on our destruction. But for this we have an army.
Ironically, it is now the Christians who have to defend their existence. Persecuted viciously in the Middle East, they are also called to task in the West for the practices that I took for granted as a child. It’s even gotten to the point where they have to write “Happy Holidays” on their annual Christmas cards, so as not to hurt the sensibilities of others. This is a euphemism for Muslims, of course. Nobody else ever gave a hoot about such nonsense.
The height of the irony and hypocrisy here is that the radical Islamists are determined to rule the globe by religion — and the most vile interpretation of it, to boot. The Left does not step in to counteract this danger. Instead, it gives the Muslims carte blanche, while forbidding public displays of Christian rituals. That churches are being burned down across the Middle East, and Christians are being tortured, killed, and exiled, is not surprising, given the spread of Shariah-law fanaticism. Far more shocking is that Christians in Western countries should have to defend their practices, as though they are tainted in some way.
There is nothing like a new set of circumstances to cause one’s perceptions to change. After so many decades of satisfaction that I don’t have to know when it’s Christmas, today I feel like celebrating it as an act of Jewish-Israeli solidarity.
Ruthie Blum is the author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’”