It may not have the splendor of Rockefeller Center, but all across the Western Galilee Christmas cheer was in full swing.
In Ma’alot-Tarshisha alone in the span of a day one could see lit-up reindeer, Christmas trees, schoolchildren dressed up as Santa Claus and servers wearing Santa hats offering up mouthwatering steak as part of a celebratory Christmas dinner.
And like that historic Manhattan site, all are welcome to partake in the merriment of the season. That is because the North – and Galilee region specifically – is a diverse amalgam of Israeli society where Christians, Jews, Druse and Muslims can and do live in harmony.
At the center of the flurry of Christmas joy in the region is the Winter Festival, a flagship project of Western Galilee Now (WGN), a consortium of small businesses in the area.
WGN, a partner of Jewish National Fund-USA, aims to develop the region by driving tourism. In joining forces with JNF, it hopes to contribute to JNF’s Go North initiative that aims to bring 300,000 people to the North.
At WGN, the motto is simple – if one small business is able to flourish, then it’s expected that they pay it forward and help entice their customers to visit other sites in the region.
“This is a piece of the puzzle. What’s good for [each business], is good for everybody,” JNF Israel Communications Officer Eric Narrow said of the organization whose business model relies on each partner looking out for the other.
In other words, as WGN works to increase tourism in the region, it is only one of the many sectors in need of development so people are enticed to visit and even live up North.
“We want people to stay for more than a day. Spend a night, relax and take in the North,” Michal Shiloah, the director of WGN, said.
At the JNF Tourist Information Center, located in Acre’s Old City, staffers help visitors craft a tailor-made Western Galilee experience based on their interests. For the 15,000 people a year who enter its blue doors, the goal is to encourage them to go beyond Acre and discover the hidden gems the region has to offer.
During the three-day festival, over 200 people witnessed the center convert to a small concert hall where Christmas carols were sung in Hebrew, Latin, English and Arabic.
The festival in general, now in its sixth year, attracted more than 2,000 attendees from all over Israel. Over the long weekend, WGN coordinated more than 30 events offering workshops, traditional foods, wine tastings and concerts featuring Christmas carols in English and Arabic.
Below is a snapshot of some festival highlights.
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” During fully booked group tours in Kafr Yasif and Ma’alot- Tarshisha of holiday was evident on every corner. While seeing a large Christmas tree in the square of the mixed village of Kafr Yasif or children happily dressed up as Santa in their schools the weekend before Christmas may not be an unusual sight in towns with a significant Christian population, spotting a group of curious Jews in Santa hats observing it all is a new phenomenon in Israeli tourism.
“I can’t really explain why it’s happening, perhaps it’s because Israelis have seen Christmas in foreign countries and want to experience it in Israel firsthand,” WGN tour guide Amnon Gofer theorized.
Shiloah, though, thinks this newfound interest in Christmas tourism shows that “...Jews embrace all who comprise Israel’s rich history and diverse fabric.”
“Everybody knows, a turkey and some mistletoe, help to make the season bright. ” No Christmas celebration would be complete without a festive feast, and the festival offered many to chose from.
At the Druse Cuisine of Janet, a WGN member, the close-knit Bissan family put together an elaborate authentic Druse meal in their home. Within moments, their living room was filled with the aromatic smells of slowly cooked rice, sambousek (a deep-fried turnover pastry with a variety of different ingredients stuffed inside), grape leaves and tabbouleh salad.
But the real culinary show-stopper was a six-course meal and Cabernet Franc wine tasting at Stern Winery. A towering figure over six feet tall, Johnny Stern, a Brazilian immigrant who came to Israel in the 1970s, is quite the Renaissance man both in the kitchen and among the vines.
During Stern’s monthly elaborate meals, attendees come for the award-winning wine, but stay for the food.
Salmon and sashimi nestled adjacent to wasabi sorbet, a fine cut of entrecote, brisket marinated in its red wine sauce for over 48 hours and a Michelin star worthy cream of mushroom soup were just some of dishes on offer from his kitchen.
“It’s so great to discover something that’s right under your nose. It gives a new perspective of home,” Erella Wilson, who resides in Har Halutz, a mere 11 kilometers (less than seven miles) from Stern’s winery, said.
“I pray my wish will come true for my child and your child too” It may seem like an incongruous sight, but in the North, it is not uncommon to see a Christian Arab sing words written by a Jew while in church.
As visitors gathered in St. George’s Church, a Catholic church in Tarshisha, Sally Ghairzuzi, an Arab Christian singer, began belting out Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
As the crowd joined her in the chorus, for a moment it was easy to forget that there was any disparity between the singer and the audience. Through the miracle of song, and the backdrop of the Galilee, for a brief moment it seemed like all barriers to peace could be toppled down.
And in a moment of tumult in the Middle East, where clashes are common in certain flashpoints of violence in Jerusalem, refugees still seek to flee from war-torn Syria and Kurds are still seeking independence, it is heartwarming to see that there is a small sliver of the region where peace on earth is indeed possible.
This article was written in cooperation with JNF-USA.