Diaries From Wartime: Christmas Tidings and Civilian Life in the Holy City

Image by Leo Li from Flickr.

Anchoring Truths is proud to bring you Jana Paley’s Diaries from Wartime, a multipart account of her experience in Israel in the wake of the attacks by Hamas in October 2023. Anchoring Truths Co-Founder Hadley Arkes, Paley’s one-time professor at Amherst College, provides a preface to this multipart series here.

December 22, 2023

Jerusalem, Israel

77 Days Since Hamas Brutally Attacked Israel

My new friends at the Jerusalem Civilian Command Center had warned me that Jerusalem closes up to observe Shabbat by early afternoon on Fridays, but they failed to tell me how much hustle and bustle goes on from early morning til about 2pm. By the time I arrived at the JCCC pop-up shop at around 10:30 am, the store was filled with people and empty hangers seemed to have been flung around the premises as if they were frisbees. Certainly, today was a big shopping day back home as we zero in on Christmas, but I think it was just as busy here. I spent the morning tidying the racks and restocking.

Before work, I stopped at what I now refer to as “my iced latte place,” the Kadosh Cafe, which my soldier pal introduced me to and which has some of the best pastry and breads in Jerusalem. I found its display case almost picked completely clean. That’s okay by me — less temptation. The nearby small fruit and vegetable stand had little left in its bins and by the time I went to get my hair done at 12:30 pm, the dried fruit and nut shop which yesterday could only be described as overflowing looked as if it had just had a Going Out of Business Sale. Israelis are no different than American grown Jews — they know how to shop for food!

When I returned to the JCCC around 1:30pm, the streets were noticeably emptier, more than half of the volunteer staff had gone home, and the shop was in complete disarray. Dana, the co-founder of the JCCC, asked if I was religious and when I responded that I was not, she drafted me to be what I can only jokingly say is a “Shabbas Goy.” For my non-Jewish friends, a “Shabbas Goy” is a non-Jewish person who performs chores for Jewish people on the Sabbath when Jews are commanded to be at rest. I grabbed piles of clothes left behind in the make-shift dressing room and started getting them back on hangers and back to their respective racks. I tidied up the tables with folded jeans, returned stray socks to the proper baskets, refolded a ton of children’s clothes, and swept up underneath all the clothing racks.

Last but not least, I got the toy area back into order which felt especially appropriate since yesterday was my Grandmother’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of her passing.  Some of you know that my MomMoms was in the toy business for over 40 years, so it was a special way to end the day while remembering both my MomMoms and my PopPops. While straightening up the the tiny kid’s book section, the landscape architecture student, Aaron, swung by to show me a full-sized rendering of the rock garden plan he is submitting to a national competition — that is, once the competition is back on since it has been postponed. It is a dramatic plan that looked astonishingly different on the story board than how it had looked his phone’s screen. I was almost speechless when he told me that he had gone to a print shop to have the full-sized plan made just to show to me. I had so much fun listening to him explain his thought process. Sira, his girlfriend, told me it was the first time she saw Aaron’s beaming smile return since they left the North on October 7th. What a privilege.

By 4pm, Dana and her significant other who is a professor of architecture as well as a practicing architect, had to close up shop, but it was the first time we had a chance to talk. To date, the JCCC has had about 3,000 volunteers, and most come in only one or two days per week for a few hours, so very few of the volunteers are regulars. They have only had one other American, a young man from New York City who originally came to help out on a farm, but he failed at tomato picking and wound up opening boxes instead. Dana told me there are about 25 core people running the show, and I was thrilled when she referred to me as a “new regular.”

December 23, 2023

Jerusalem, Israel

If I was not as clear as a wine glass freshly cleaned by my mother that Jerusalem is serious about Shabbat, let me iterate that sabbath in Jerusalem is a synonym for “retail is verboten.” Despite my schedule at the Jerusalem Civilian Command Center, I have kept up my 8-10 mile daily walks, so I figured this was a great day to find a coffee shop, explore, and add some extra clicks. It was drizzling when I left, so there was a premium on finding my morning iced latte quickly, at least before I would actually need something hot.  Let’s just say I might have found a husband more easily than I found a café! I finally came upon a busting Arab-run coffee bar filled with an international set working on their laptops, and I was delighted to order my morning usual.

Sitting next to me was a young man doing the New York Times Spelling Bee, something I fervently do daily, so I was sure he was an American. Wrong! He was a South African who, like me, had traveled to Israel on his own to volunteer. We bonded over online NYT games and we raced to see who could reach Genius and then Queen Bee first as we exchanged stories about our experiences. Like my friend Claudia, he is helping out at a farm in the south, leaving early each morning and returning to Jerusalem each afternoon. Though he described it as hard work, you could tell he loved contributing with his own two hands.

Wanting to get in my miles before the expected harder rain, I went off to explore the neighborhood around Zion Square, Ben Yehuda Street, and Jaffa Road. Zion Square is a little like Five Points in Sarasota and it serves as one of the vertices of what is known at the Downtown Triangle. This is the local commercial hub and it is ordinarily packed with locals, tourists, students, street performers, and some homeless. But today, it was ghost town. Save for a few people walking their dogs and some religious people strolling home from synagogue, a strategically placed bomb would have only hurt me and seven or eight others. 

Finally, I got the memo — Saturday is for rest. As it started to pour, I cut my walk short and returned to relax. Chilled and wet, I stopped at the hotel bar to get a hot cup of tea and found it filled with a sea of Hasidic Jews wearing either “kolpiks” or “shtreimels,” large round hats typically made of sable or fox that look like furry crowns. As I nursed my hot tea, several men came over to tell me, not ask me, to turn off my phone. This came as no surprise as the same thing happened to me last night at dinner. I simply told them the phone would remain on as I expected a call from my 90 year-old mom. One man had the nerve to tell me my mother should not be calling me on Shabbat. I am staying at an American hotel; my bet is that if I were at an Israeli hotel I would have been asked to leave. Jerusalem may be home to a diverse population, but the majority of its Jewish population is either “Haredi,” ultra-orthodox, or quite observant. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics in a report released in May of 2022, only 18% of Jerusalem’s Jewish population characterizes itself as secular.

To end Shabbat, I was privileged to be invited to the home of Rabbis Analia Bortz and Mario Karpuj who are old friends of my Amherst classmate Dawn Bear Ventura. How special it was to observe Havdalah, the ceremony which concludes Shabbat, with them and two other new friends. Mario plays the guitar and Analia has an amazing voice, so we spent almost an hour filling their beautiful home with songs, many of which I have not heard since my school days. I already realize I have made new friends for life. I was grateful for the wonderful hospitality!

The Jerusalem Civilian Command opened back up this evening, so after Havdalah, I went off to work.  I have promised to stick to a one page journal, so more on who I met there tonight in tomorrow’s installment. But I will just tempt you: Do any of you know about the Abayudaya?

December 24, 2023

Jerusalem, Israel

(Merry Christmas to all Celebrating the Holiday!)

Before I begin to share how today began, I must digress and discuss how yesterday ended. After the beautiful Havdalah ceremony and joyous singing with my new friends, Rabbis Analia and Mario, I returned to the pop-up shop. I knew the Jerusalem Civilian Command would be short of help post-Shabbat, especially as it was a windy and rainy night. We were not busy at first, but a steady stream of people came by after they finished their dinners. As closing time neared, a young black man with a Cheshire Cat smile breezed into the store, and a young woman accompanying him immediately told me that Ezra had journeyed to Israel from Uganda to help farmers harvest their crops.

Well, how could you help but ask the big question — why would a young Ugandan volunteer in Israel when there must be plenty of problems to conquer at home? There is a simple answer: Ezra explained that he hails from the Abayudaya tribe of eastern Uganda and that members of his sect have been practicing Judaism quite devoutly since 1919. It was then that a military leader named Kakungulu studied the original Five Books of Moses and decided to be circumcised himself and to circumcise his own boys under Jewish law. He then fled with followers from his village to an area near Mt. Elgon and declared that he would lead a “Community of Jews Who Trust in the Lord,” known as the Kibina Bayudaya Abesiga Katonda. Shortly after forming the community, Yosef, an Ashkenazi Jew, visited the area and stayed for several months imparting traditions, teaching rituals and the kosher laws, and even having the people follow the Jewish calendar. Yosef and Kakungulu even started a Yeshiva, a Jewish school for children.

Ezra explained that multiple leaders of Uganda including Idi Amin persecuted the Abayudaya people and destroyed their places of worship. Some members of the sect defected to Christianity or Islam, but a core group of several hundred remained devout. Furthermore, he told me that during the time of Idi Amin when people were indiscriminately murdered, his grandparents practiced Judaism openly in defiance of government power. By the end of the 1970s, there were perhaps only 200 to 300 practicing Jews left in Uganda and they began to refer to themselves as She’erit Israel —the Remnant of Israel. Today there are more than 1000 practicing Jews living in Uganda and there are several active synagogues and Jewish schools.

Many of the Abayudayan people are farmers, and though their own economic circumstances are far from good, when the attack occurred one of their Rabbis took immediate action to raise money to send two young men to Israel to assist the farmers who found themselves without staff. Ezra has been in Israel about a month and though he is about ready to depart, someone suggested that he visit the JCCC and bring home some much needed clothing to his mother, father, and four siblings. It was heartwarming to help someone who had left his own needy family to help others and I will never forget him. He carries a prayer book with him and has people he meets sign it — maybe he will not forget me either. 

Now for today which, since I play by my own rules of sticking to one page, I fear will receive short shrift.  When I told my dear friend Stephen Matloff that I felt compelled to volunteer, he went into immediate action and introduced me to the Director of the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Hospital, Rachel Wolf. She in turn introduced me to Adir Schwarz, whose dad was the long time boss of the the hospital’s Development Office in Jerusalem. Rachel arranged for Audrey Gross to tour me through SZ’s astounding new 18-story, for Chai, 900-bed hospital tower. Most of you know I have spent way too much time as a hospital patient, so I know a good medical complex when I see it. From the state of the art technology, to the fabulous user friendly design, and from the expressions on the faces of staff and patients and their families, to the fact that the hospital smells like a hotel and not a medical center, I can say that every detail of the new Shaare Zedek was top-notch. The Shaare Zedek team should be proud of such an accomplishment and I only wish I could write much more!   

December 25, 2024

Jerusalem, Israel

Can we all agree that some of the things that I write in my Jerusalem Journal stays between us and that there is no need to share all of it with my mom? Today started early, actually just before midnight when I asked the hotel concierge what was going on in the Old City for the celebration of Christmas. He was certain that if I walked through the Jaffa Gate that I would find many Christian Pilgrims heading to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to celebrate, along with a full complement of security. I neared the Church at midnight, and indeed, I saw plenty of soldiers and small group of Christian Arabs walking toward one of the holiest sites in the world for Christians. Imagine everyone’s disappointment when we found the Church completely locked down. Though I got the memo that Bethlehem decided to shutter for Christmas, I was shocked that this critical pilgrimage site was closed tighter than a safety deposit box.

As we made an about face to leave, a priest walked by and assured us that the Church would be open to the public in the morning. As I had not taken a day off yet from my volunteer work, I decided that I would spend Christmas Day in the Old City rather than go to the Jerusalem Civilian Command Center. I mostly wanted to be able to report to my Christian friends just what goes on in Jerusalem for the holiday.

Upon returning to the hotel early Christmas morning, I asked the desk managers whether Christmas was ordinarily a big event in Jerusalem. Overwhelmingly, they insisted that Christmas is a huge tourist time and that the hotel is usually at full capacity with a very large percentage of guests identifying as Christian.  The night manager actually said that Christmas attracts as many tourists as Passover, which is a huge holiday in Jerusalem, and that guests make reservations almost a year in advance. I asked if potential guests had started canceling reservations right after October 7, and he said that most called to cancel within a few days of the outbreak of war. Let me just tell all of you, that with the exception of restaurants being quite busy, business is so bad that it is sad. Many shopkeepers are only open by appointment.

After getting some sleep, I spent Christmas morning at my favorite coffee shop. I then walked through the Bloomfield Gardens, down through Teddy Park and Mitchell Park & Gardens, and up to the Hutzot Hayotzer Artist Colony, where only two or three artisans out of about twenty had their studios open, and then I crossed into the Old City. Some things do not change, they just get more intense. The shopkeepers on David Street, also known as the Arab Shuk, can sniff out Americans faster than my dog smells his dinner, and they were incredibly aggressive with every Yankee who even glanced at their shop. Without even knowing it, I suddenly had a shopkeeper as a guide. I can just say it is quite a hustle, but you have to feel for these people as there is so little traffic. 

Though I knew the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Abed was keen to take me by a less popular route through the Christian Quarter. He assured me there would be a big line to enter the Church, but that he knew a guy that would get us in quickly. Well, not only was there no line, the Church was astoundingly empty. I saw one girl lighting a candle, and a few people were kneeling by the Stone of Unction where people believe Jesus was laid and prepared for burial. The only queue was at the entry to the tomb where Jesus was buried and from which he was resurrected. Abed and a priest told me that normally thousands pour in on Christmas Day, but this year the count would probably just be in the hundreds. It seemed like Christmas had been canceled. 

I toured some other sites and then got ready for dinner with Carice Witte, a friend of one of my oldest friends. More of what I learned from Carice, an expert on Israel-Chinese relations, tomorrow. Merry Christmas Everyone!

Jana Paley has become a leading figure in business as the CEO of Ark Properties, building “affordable work-force multi-family housing,” and Ark Ventures, becoming a “foundational investor” in such companies as PM Pediatrics, a chain for pediatric urgent care. She is a graduate of the Wharton School of Business and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, but even before that she was a student of Prof. Arkes at Amherst College.

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