Christmas time: a time for gift-giving, tree lighting, and celebration. In the spirit of Christmas, Jewish and Arab musicians came together in the Arab-Israeli city of Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus, to kick off the third edition of the Liturgical Festival.
The sold-out opening concert with the Galilee Chamber Orchestra took place at the picturesque Salesian Church on Thursday, which overlooks the entire city.
A celebration of classical music, the three-day festival was run by the Polyphony Conservatory, the first-ever classical music conservatory in Nazareth.
Nabeel Abboud Ashkar, executive director of Polyphony, said that the vision of the association is to break down boundaries between the Arab and Jewish sectors in Israel.
“What better way to do that than have a festival in Nazareth around Christmas where it’s liturgical music, it’s in the churches and there are all these wonderful celebrations going around in addition to the music?” Abboud Ashkar said.
Thursday night’s kickoff event celebrated 250 years of Beethoven, beginning with the famous composer’s Symphony No. 1, and moving on to “Christ on the Mount of Olives” – a dramatic oratorio portraying Jesus’ turmoil before his crucifixion.
Polyphony was founded in 2006 and runs four different programs, starting from basic music appreciation and exposure to music in kindergartens and elementary schools, all the way up to its professional ensemble: the Galilee Chamber Orchestra.
Before the pandemic, they reached some 10,000 students on an annual basis. Mariah Saleh, a 25-year-old violist, joined the Nazareth Conservatory when she reached grade seven and now regularly performs with the Galilee Chamber Orchestra.
“It just opens your eyes to a whole new world,” Saleh said of Polyphony’s educational program.
“It’s all about the vision that we have, which is basically to bridge the divide between Arabs and Jews through music,” she said. Amichai Hefter, a violist who lives in Jerusalem, echoed those sentiments.
“It encouraged me to get to know people outside of my own bubble, to understand and to open my mind beyond the bubble which I lived in,” the 22-year-old musician said.
For Nabeel Aboud Ashkar, who is himself a trained violinist, one of the goals is to shine a spotlight on his hometown Nazareth and what he views as its latent potential.
In that vein, the Galilee Chamber Orchestra is slated to perform at Carnegie Hall with renowned violinist Joshua Bell next March.
“We’re hoping that through culture we’ll leverage the status of the city within Israel and internationally to be known not just because of its unique story and history, but also because of the rich culture that it has to offer,” he added.
Outside the church, the people of Nazareth were also busy getting ready to celebrate Christmas. The beautifully illuminated markets of the city are normally a big draw for tourists, and its main square boasts the tallest Christmas tree in the Middle East, standing at around 100 feet (30 m) tall.
Meirav Cohen, Israel’s minister for social equality, who was touring the city square Thursday evening, acknowledged that the economic issues brought about by pandemic restrictions were unlikely to go away anytime soon.
“The entire tourism sector, which relies on incoming visitors, has been hit very hard,” Cohen said. “Many business owners have been negatively impacted. We have to help them financially and unfortunately, we also need to understand that there’s good chance tourism will continue to be affected by the pandemic in the coming years.”
Tourists or no tourists, some in Nazareth refused to let the virus put a damper on their favorite holiday.
“I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and happy new year, and that we’ll get rid of this coronavirus,” a local shopkeeper named Zahid said. “It’s been two years that we haven’t celebrated!”
Written by Maya Margit and republished with permission from The Media Line.