I was born and raised in a quiet little town by the sea, far from borders and conflict and also far from cultural diversity. Other than a short exchange program in Germany during high school, I never actually met anyone who wasn’t Jewish. I knew nothing else. Though I was supposedly privileged, I felt deprived of encountering and being familiar with other cultures.
That might be the cause of my curiosity towards people from other places. My first experience meeting completely different cultures was when I backpacked in southeast Asia for 8 months at the age of 22. Nature was stunning, but I was mostly enchanted by the exotic faces, customs, prayers etc. The times I was invited to an Indian family’s home or to join a wedding in a remote village in northern Laos, were the best moments of my journey.
Since then I have traveled quite extensively, and yet every time I arrive in a new place I’m thrilled and filled with excitement, ready to wander, explore and experience.
During my first year at university in Jerusalem, I was living at the university housing. It was one of ten rooms, sharing showers and a kitchen. It turned out that this dormitory was mainly popular among “our cousins” (a common term used by Jews for Arabs and vice versa). So that year was an ongoing intercultural experience. I got familiar with Oud music, learnt belly dancing and was surprised to discover that stuffed vine leaves did not come only in a can. Despite some awkwardness that was provided occasionally by the news, we were generally having a good time that year. I was considered their “pet Jew”.
I realized that while I eagerly traveled to discover far away cultures, I was actually missing so much of what was just next to me. Later that year, my friend Samira invited me to join Christmas eve at her grandmother’s house. Needless to say I was very happy with the invitation.
I will always remember that night as one of my best experiences. It was as magical as I remembered seeing on American movies. The family was extremely nice and welcoming, the food was beyond delicious (never knew even carrots can be stuffed!) and there was the tree, songs, gifting, and finally, Santa. Jingle Bells in Arabic (“Laylet Eid”) was playing and one of the cousins, a beautiful 9 or 10 years old girl, was dressed as Santa Claus came in carrying a sack on her back. She walked around the room handing each and everyone the same little present. As she got closer I saw the treat was familiar – a dreidel-shaped box filled with sweets, like the one we uses to get at my grandparents’ house for Hanukkah.