Letter from Nazareth: Members of the Wedding
It is only a little more than two hours’ drive from Jerusalem to Nazareth in the Galilee, but there are barriers to be crossed on the way. Not physical barriers manned by police and soldiers, but rather invisible ones of indifference and suspicion that isolate the lives of Jews and Arabs from each other. My wife, Judy, and I have crossed those barriers many times before.
And as we have crossed the barriers to our Arab friends, they have made the crossing to us.
My crossings led from the classes at the Hadassah Medical School, where I taught for 30 years. Most entering Arab students are younger than their Jewish classmates, who serve in Israel’s Armed Forces before college, and the educational background of Arab and Jewish students is often disparate. I tried to assist my Arab students in closing the gaps in preparation and maturity, offering evenings in my home for talk of medicine and science over cake and coffee, keeping an open door to my office. And as I reached out to my students, so did Judy to her young Arab colleagues in the Ministry of Social Welfare.
One of my student’s parents were the Khourys: Samir, an attorney close to my age, and Rula, a high school teacher, some years younger than Judy. A deep friendship has grown between us, extending to the many branches of the Khoury family. We are in each other’s homes on our Sabbaths and their holy days; the Sabbath halla board and Passover Seder plate we use are Rula’s gifts. We call and visit each other at moments of joy and sadness; we have been with the Khourys when illness has struck, when they sat in mourning. When Iraqi scuds began to rain on Israel in 1991, Samir insisted that we and our children and grandchildren shelter in their house; Nazareth would be spared. I pointed out that sheltering a Jewish family might not endear them to their neighbors. “Inshallah, as God wills,” Samir said, and continued to insist. That was the only invitation of his that I did not accept.
The Khourys and the Haddads are celebrating the wedding of their children, George and Amal. Both families are prominent in the Christian communities of the Galilee—the Khourys members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Haddads of the Roman Catholic—and the festivities will last the better part of a week. Judy and I are appointed “Members of the Wedding,” part of the inner circle of both families.
Before the wedding, the Haddads host a dinner for some 600 guests in a wedding hall; only a symbolic contingent of the groom’s people are invited—40 close relatives and friends—to arrive late into the party. The following night a dinner is given by the Khourys for their guests, also 600 strong, and with a similarly late appearance by a representation of Haddads.
Before dark falls, Judy and I light the Sabbath candles and recite Kiddush in a hotel not far from where the Khourys live on the seam between Arab Nazareth and the largely Jewish town of Upper Nazareth. Samir escorts us to the hall, where long tables are laden with dishes served until the small hours of morning, and with many bottles of Chivas Regal, wine and arak.
Judy and I are seated with Khoury aunts and uncles, in-laws and cousins, people very much like our crowd in Jerusalem—physicians, lawyers, social workers, academics, well-to-do businessmen and women. One relative is a Dr. Nabil, who is on the staff of a hospital in Haifa. He is very much the Arab nationalist; he has not found it easy coming to terms with the founding of the Jewish state, in the eyes of many Arabs their nakba, their catastrophe. Dr. Nabil was born and educated in this state; he knows full well that he could not have achieved in any of the Arab countries the training in modern medicine he has had in Israel. That is one side of the ledger.
There is another side as well. His family lost most of their lands, requisitioned by the state for one reason or another; the narrative and symbols of this state are not his people’s. Were I in his place, I ask myself, would I not have been left with a residue of bitterness?
But bitterness has been set aside this night. Nabil and I toast the young couple, our families, each other with glass upon glass of Chivas and fine red wine. Nabil says suddenly: “Were there 20 professors like you here with us tonight to raise a cup to George and Amal, it would be different in this country.” Hyperbole flowing with the drink? No, I don’t think so. We are not drunk. “Twenty professors…”—20 Jewish professors, 20 Jewish friends, he means, here on a night like this. Judy and I—I wearing my gray kippa—are the only Jews who have accepted the invitation.
It hits me now: We move in many circles across the social and political spectrums of Jerusalem. The circles in which we feel comfortable are liberal, people who wish to live in peace with our Arab neighbors. And yet I cannot recall a single evening in a Jewish home but ours to which Arab guests have been invited. The Arab is the invisible man in our society.
A waiter sets another platter before us, a roast of lamb. “Shukran,” we say, “bass ihna navatyyin. Mnakol ii-salata. Kull isi tamam (Thank you, but we are vegetarians, we are doing fine with the salads).” The waiter smiles, as if seeing through the small deception. “I will bring you something good that you may eat,” he says. A few minutes later, fresh broiled fish—tilapia—is exchanged for the meat.
People leave the table for the floor, men and women and children dancing in tightly massed circles, round and round, to the pulsating beat of classical Arab music. I have danced in such circles before at wedding parties in Jerusalem of Aramaic-speaking Jews who once lived in the mountain villages of Kurdistan. The band’s leader strikes up a ballad, “Wen il-aris? Wen il-aris?” (Where is the groom? Where is the groom?), and Rula calls out, “He is here! He is here!” and the crowd in affirmation chants the virtues of her son.
Every so often the circle widens, clearing space for solitary dancers. Small groups dance apart wherever there is a bit of room. Judy picks up a little girl and hops in duo with the child’s mother. Judy shouldn’t be doing this, she is still recovering from an operation, but she ignores my protestations with her usual “Don’t tell me what to do.”
At an adjoining table a couple sits alone. The woman is dressed in a hijab, the modest attire of observant Muslim women. I walk over and introduce myself: “Ismi Daoud, kif halku il-yom?” (My name is David, how are you today?) Her husband rises. “Khaled, As-salamu aleikum!” he says, and begins to dance with me. His wife and Judy join us. “Peace be with you,” Khaled repeats, throwing an arm around my shoulders when we stop for a rest.
Then I spot a man with whom I danced a year ago at George and Amal’s engagement party. I had not met him before, nor have I seen him since. Now we dance face-to-face, arms lifted high, holding hands. I have never been graceful on the dance floor, and with the attrition of the years and an artificial hip, I am clumsier still, but the rhythm is seductive and, what the hell, I try for a kazachok, and the Chivas helps. Like a bear, Judy tells me later. But my partner says something else while we gyrate: “Dancing, you know, brings nations together.” Nations, he says. Too optimistic an assessment? Perhaps. But if not nations, then people, at least.
The Haddads arrive. Amal’s father booms Shabbat Shalom to us across the room. Holding tall, lit tapers, Amal steps into the circle and glides along its circumference. George and his parents are led into the middle and the music rises to a crescendo. The two couples are lifted high on chairs, the bearers swaying with the beat; I can feel myself transported to a traditional Jewish wedding dinner somewhere, anywhere in the world.
Later, long after midnight, two men waltz into the ring carrying a large, open wicker basket filled with shaving foam. They fling great wads of the stuff at George and at the swirling guests—a modern adaptation of a venerable custom: a groom’s last shave before his metamorphosis to husband.
The party ends well into the morning with a final fanfare from the band, but no one is ready to call it a night. The young people form a line winding around the room and do the debka; the older folks mill about, prolonging farewells. Rula and Samir suggest we come to their place for coffee and baklava, but we are wilting and walk back to our hotel.
We are invited to the homes of the Khourys’ married daughters and Samir’s sister’s children. They all know our observance of the Jewish dietary laws—we have enjoyed their hospitality many times. The talk wanders between Hebrew and Arabic. Judy and I can partly follow the Arabic, and here and there I try to hold my own in the language. We have been slowly learning the Palestinian dialect with a young Muslim woman, who works in a Jewish institution in Jerusalem for children stricken with cancer, and in classes given at the YMCA by a Catholic professor of linguistics from the university in Bethlehem. My attempt is greeted with pleasure and surprise. Had we grown up in Israel, I declare, we would be doing better now, Jewish children are taught the language in school. “Not very much of it,” one of our hosts remarks—he is chief executive officer of a successful biotechnology company—“and, in truth, only so that they might better come to know the enemy.”
“For the two of us,” I counter, “our late beginning is only so that we can speak with our friends in their own language. And surely there are many of us for whom that is the motive.”
“If only you were right,” he answers. I hope that I am right.
The marriage ceremony. The Members of the Wedding gather midafternoon at the Khourys’ house. For the first time in my 40 years in Israel, I wear a dark suit and a stiff-collared shirt with tie. We escort the groom to the bride’s home in a cavalcade of cars with horns blaring through Nazareth’s narrow, winding streets. The men wait on the lawn while the women pay court to the bride upstairs; she is presented with jewelry and money, farewell gifts as she parts from her home to the new one she is to found with her husband.
Another cavalcade brings us all to the Orthodox church. Two parallel rows of lilies set in planters have been placed on the portico. The couple and their parents walk the flowered path to the sanctuary, the train of guests following. Priests in the elaborate vestments of the Orthodox rite perform the hour-long ceremony; the bride and groom wear coronets of plaited boughs.
The service completed, Khourys and Haddads form a receiving line. More than an hour passes before the last guests have been greeted, hugged, kissed and given a small favor.
In the evening, there is a reception for the closer circle of guests in a garden of a monastery overlooking the city; champagne and sweets are served, the younger people dancing on a raised platform to loud Western music announced by a disc jockey.
As we leave, I say to Samir’s brother: “These have been days of normalcy in our world gone abnormal.”
“No,” he says. “What happens in our world has become the norm. It’s these days that are abnormal.”
Breakfast with the Khourys before the young couple departs for a honeymoon abroad. Rula has plastered a round of yeast dough to the doorpost, the place where Jews attach a mezuza. As George and Amal leave, Rula stands at the open door and chants. A prayer. I understand only a few of the words. One is dayman—always. May there always be bread in her children’s homes.
In the taxi back to Jerusalem, Judy and I listen to the news. A barrage of Kassams has again hit towns in the Negev. A number of Palestinians were killed in Gaza by an IDF missile fired at Hamas gunmen, passersby among the victims. Normalcy. Dayman? No. I shall not accept tha