It was Easter on Sunday. And Passover started Friday. And that got me thinking about the religious festivals and holidays I’ve seen in other parts of the world. For an American, visiting abroad at a holiday can be very powerful, and very isolating, especially if that holiday is not celebrated or done so in a way that differs significantly from the traditions we are used to. I was in Tel Aviv once, right before Christmas. It was the only time in my life when I understood what it was like to be a Christian in the Western parts of the world—where that holiday is venerated beyond all others. In Israel, there are no Christmas trees, no holiday windows with ornaments. So many are Jewish that it seemed to me that everyone simply defaulted to that expectation in public, and I suddenly saw Christmas the way practicing Jews must see Hanukkah everywhere else, as an ancillary and minimized event.
When the holiday is one we are completely unfamiliar with, it’s a chance to see the best of a culture that is being honest and connecting with its pageantry and, often, its spirituality. One year, Greg and I were in Egypt for the last few days of Ramadan. When Greg decided to fast each day, the delight of our Egyptian friends was clear. They didn’t care that he wasn’t Muslim; his desire to bond was what was important. The first day, at sunset, Greg bit into a fresh date and pronounced it the most delicious morsel he had ever tasted. By the next afternoon, senses heightened by hunger, he could smell the cheese someone opened all the way at the other end of the bus. The last night, we went into the heart of Cairo with our Egyptian friends, to witness the final feast ending the month-long holiday. We parked a mile from our destination because that was as close as we could get in the traffic, and walked past shop after restaurant after store after home, all offering food up to any passersby who stopped. The infectious joy, the teeming streets, the sheer mass of people celebrating, all worked on me until I was caught up in the spirit of this new holiday, shared with friends, family, strangers and me, and by extension the whole world.