Posted by: RaeAn | 30 December 2010

In the Little Town of Bethlehem…

…which is called Beit Lechem (בית לחם) by the locals… which, if you don’t know Hebrew, means “House of Bread”…

…a bunch of rabbinical students showed up in Manger Square to experience Midnight Mass one mild Christmas Eve…


It was crowded... and this was pretty early on in the night. It got much busier as it got closer to midnight.

Yup, a group of us made the trek out to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve this year. We had a program, service, and dinner on campus for Shabbat, with several LA campus kids in town on a trip with the School of Jewish Nonprofit Management (which is the second masters degree I’ll be getting, so I’ll be joining them soon); then we ran home, grabbed our passports, and headed to Damascus Gate to catch transportation to Bethlehem.

(Full photo album is here:

It’s not a piece of cake to get there, since Bethlehem is in the West Bank/Palestinian Territories. While it’s technically not crossing a “border,” per se, since Israel is still in charge of the area to some extent, checkpoints are kind of a big deal there.

We had a large group going. Several of my classmates got into a bus and a cab that took them to the checkpoint, they crossed on foot, then grabbed other cabs to Bethlehem itself. A group of 6 of us got lucky and managed to find two cabs that are licensed in both Israel and Palestine (a rare case) and could take us across the border. It was really easy that way — the guard asked for the driver’s ID, but just checked to see we were tourists and Americans and waved us on by. Simple enough.

It’s not far from Jerusalem. It only took about 10 minutes to the checkpoint, then another 15 to Bethlehem.

We got out of the cab as close to Manger Square as the cab could get us; someone important was in town for Mass (Abbas, maybe?) so the streets close to the Church of the Nativity were all closed to traffic for security purposes. Reasonable, I suppose. We walked up a massive hill, then got to Manger Square, the square right outside the Church of the Nativity, which is built where the inn was that Jesus was born in. Or at least that’s how I think the story goes… I’m fuzzy on the details. I’m not as knowledgeable on Christian history as the Jewish stuff. Which I hope is understandable. Somewhat.


Christmas Tree in Bethlehem, right outside Manger Square.

For some reason, my brain didn’t work all that well, and I was shocked by how… Arab… the place was. I knew consciously that Bethlehem is in the West Bank and therefore Arab, but I guess I didn’t think it through all that well. It’s 60% Christian these days, but all Arab Christian, and I should’ve known that if I’d brought my conscious brain into the picture, but I didn’t until we got there… so it was a bit of a shock, but I got over it quickly.


Merry Christmas from Bethlehem... In English and Arabic!


Santa makes it to Palestine, too. 🙂

The crowds there were pretty intense — so many people came to Bethlehem for the evening!


The crowd waiting outside of one church gets larger and larger as midnight, and time for mass, draws near. This is just one of the bajillion and two churches in the city. Yes, that's an exact number. I counted.

Lights lined the streets of Bethlehem... it was beautiful. I had a horrible time trying to get good pictures of it -- the lighting was awful for pictures and my poor little Canon Powershot A650i can only do so much. I need a digital SLR. (*hint hint to anyone looking for birthday gifts for February 11 hint hint... it'll benefit you, too, since you'll get better pictures of my travels... hint hint*)

After wandering the streets a while, we made our way back to Manger Square in time for the beginning of Midnight Mass.


Midnight Mass begins at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, with the church full of people and song. We watched it from Manger Square outside of the church on the giant screen.

My friend Brian, a rabbinical student, and I watch the mass in Manger Square.

They had an orchestra during the Mass, and the music was beautiful... even though I couldn't understand a word of it, not knowing Latin and all that.

We didn’t stay too long — only for the first 15-20 minutes of the Mass, since we wanted to get back across the border and to bed at a reasonable hour since we had services at school the next morning.

Merry Christmas from Bethlehem... in whatever language you like!

There were 6 of us that stayed that late, and we managed to get lucky and find a cabbie with 7 seats in his car. He was fantastic — spoke English fluently since he leads tours with a political tour group, Green Olive Tours, I think… some liberal-hippie-touristy company. He was awesome. He took us to the checkpoint, where we walked through, they scanned our bags, we flashed our passports, and walked back onto Israeli soil and found a shuttle back to Jerusalem. They were running regularly all night for people going to and from Bethlehem (for what I assume are obvious reasons). So I made it home safely, slept well, and experienced my first (and probably only) Christmas Eve in Bethlehem.

I also took some video of the Mass… I have 4 clips in all, but I think this one shows the best stuff, even though I suck at taking video in a crowd like that. You even get to see the Baby Jesus Himself. (Get excited!)


So that was my Christmas. Definitely different than my usual Chinese food and a movie with the family. How was yours?

Also, want to read an amusing piece? Derek sent this to me. I have a feeling you’ll enjoy it: Interview with the Nativity Innkeeper


Some small victories of note: My roommate wanted to make sure I mentioned that when our electricity went out, she successfully fixed it. Mazal tov to Megan. Ha.

Also, Megan and I went to the Court House to see if we could get a full-time-student discount on our Arnona (rental taxes) — they wanted to charge is 2700 shekels for just the first 6 months! — and it was a success! Thanks to our classmate, Allie, we got all the paperwork in and got it reduced to under 600 shekels, almost an 80% discount. That’s more like it. Yay us for navigating Israeli Bureaucracy!


I just finished my last in-class final this morning (Biblical Hebrew Grammar. Killed it dead. Woohoo.)… my sister is napping on my bed until the Sheirut comes to pick us up for our New Years vacation in Amsterdam! I’m very excited — we have tickets to the Anne Frank House/Museum and a few other neat places… and New Years Eve in Amsterdam is supposed to be a riot. My friend Mandy is coming with us from Israel, and my sister’s friend Abby, who’s studying in France, is meeting us there tomorrow. It should be a good time! Let me know if you have any recommendations for places to go in Amsterdam — I haven’t over-planned the trip, just a few stops, so we’re still open to suggestions!

Only downside: it’s supposed to be COLD there. I’ve become a total wuss while living in Israel… I layer up for the upper-50-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures we’ve been having… hello, real 20-degree winter, guess I’ll have to meet you again in a few hours. Brrrr.

And now I’m off! Have a great New Year, everyone, and see you on the other side! (With plenty of Amsterdam pictures, I’m sure!)


~ Rae



  1. YESSS thanks for the shout-out!

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