By 6th January people are usually putting away their Christmas decorations, but here the season is slightly lengthened, as the Orthodox celebrate Christmas almost a fortnight later (and the Armenians later still!). I was privileged to attend the Christmas celebrations in Sakhnin this year, firstly at a choir concert, when Bishop Theophilus of Acre conducted the Sakhnin choir in what was very like a ‘9 Lessons and Carols’- but in Byzantine chant. It was wonderful, and even the children’s choir sang a few pieces. On the Saturday (7th January) I attended the Christmas Day service, which in many ways reminded me of services in Zambia, with people coming in and out and wandering up to the front in groups to have a blessing from the priest, who was enormously patient about it all. There must have been a good few hundred people there, of all ages and all dressed in their best. Usually the women in the Arab communities dress very conservatively, but the younger generation here is certainly moving away from that! I somehow get the impression of a well-educated and reasonably prosperous community. It was held in the new church, a massive structure, but which the families themselves are building – and it is heartening to see how well it is progressing.
After the service, families gather for their Christmas dinner, thus breaking their 40 day fast (no meat) with chicken. I was invited to one of the homes, where Abu Hanna, the patriarch, has 10 sons and 1 daughter, all of whom were there with their own families, so very busy, but extraordinarily welcoming.
In the Greek Orthodox church (and even at the concert), the men and women sit separately, though interestingly the choir itself is mixed. Interesting, especially since there has been a lot in the news just now about female soldiers singing at army functions and provoking a walk-out by the more religious male soldiers. Israel has tended to be a very secular state with women reaching the highest offices (indeed, the leaders of two of the main political parties are women). However, there have been a number of issues recently which seems to undermine this. In the more religious parts of Jerusalem, streets were segregated during religious holidays, shops vandalised for not having a separate entrance for women; while certain buses have also been segregated with women having to sit at the back. A female soldier who refused to do so was verbally abused and had to leave the bus. Even adverts on buses or shelters featuring women have apparently been removed, in case they are vandalised. This all came to a head recently in Beit Shemesh, a town in between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where a 9 year old girl had to run the gauntlet of ultra-orthodox Jews, who want schools there segregated and who regarded her clothing as provocative (ironically the girl is from a religious family, and her clothing would probably be regarded as acceptable by most!). This has led to rallies by both the more secular, who are afraid of freedoms being eroded, and by the ultra orthodox, who have grown in number and want their voice to be heard.