Believers worldwide celebrate today as Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, whom they worship as the Son of God. The founding events are set in Israel of 20 centuries ago.
As told in the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke, a Jewish couple named Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a Roman census. Rebuffed from every inn in the crowded village, they settled in a stable, where Jesus was born.
In nearby fields, angels announced the birth to shepherds, who rushed to the stable to worship the child. And from the East, magi or wise men followed a special star to Jesus’ home and offered gifts of gold, incense and rare spice.
Roman Catholic churches began Christmas with Midnight Mass; Eastern Orthodox churches held Divine Liturgy. Protestant Churches often celebrate with carols and special cantatas.
Church youths like to stage “Living Nativity” scenes, recreating the first Christmas — a custom said to have been founded by St. Francis of Assisi. A few churches unpack high-tech gear or rent civic auditoriums for elaborately staged pageants.
Christmas traditionally was from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6 — the “Twelve Days of Christmas” in the carol of the same name. That tradition still thrives among Hispanic and Latino Christians. They celebrate Jan. 6 as Three Kings Day, when they believe the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem.
— James Davis
Tonight starts Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Feast of Lights. Hanukkah, whose name is Hebrew for “Dedication,” recalls the Jews’ recapture of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem from a pagan tyrant.
Hanukkah is sometimes called the Jewish Christmas, and the first night falls on Christmas Eve this year. But the two holidays have overlapped only eight times since 1900, according to Vox. And the founding events of Hanukkah are not related to Christmas; they took place 165 years before the traditional date of Jesus’ birth.
At the time, Israel was ruled by a Greco-Syrian king named Antiochus Epiphanes. The king banned Judaism and had a pig — a ritually unclean animal — sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple.
The Israelites finally revolted for freedom of religion, led by the five Maccabee brothers. They miraculously defeated the Greek army and set out to rededicate the Temple, but found only one day’s supply of oil for the Great Menorah or candelabrum. In the story’s second miracle, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough to purify a new supply.
Jewish families commemorate the victory by lighting a small, eight-branched menorah at home, while singing seasonal songs such as Maoz Tzur, or “Rock of Ages.” One more candle is lighted each night, until by the last night, the whole candelabrum is ablaze.
Hanukkah also features festive foods: latkes, or potato pancakes for East European Jews; sufganiot, or doughnuts filled with jelly or chocolate, for Mideastern Jews. Both are deep-fried in oil, recalling the miracle of the Temple lamp.
A more subtle holiday custom is the dreidel, a four-sided top that children play with. The sides of the dreidel have Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hay and Shin . The letters form an acrostic for a sentence: Nes gadol hayah sham, or “A great miracle happened there.”
— James D. Davis
Today starts Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. Advent, which is marked by the four Sundays before that day, is celebrated mainly in traditional churches, especially Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic.
The season’s central symbol, the Advent wreath, is a leafy horizontal circle with four candles, a new one lighted each Sunday. Each church lights a large wreath, and many homes of the faithful often have smaller versions. Although the custom originated in western Europe, Hispanic Catholic parishes have adopted the wreath as well.
Another Advent custom is the Jesse tree, often decorated by children in church schools. The tree, which doesn’t have to be a pine, is draped with homemade representations of biblical prophecies — scrolls, the Lion of Judah, seraphim, David’s harp and other symbols — believed by Christians to have foretold Jesus’ life.
— James D. Davis
Imagine learning that your grandfather’s rifle was stamped with a swastika.
Now imagine that you make that discovery as a young Jew in Israel.
Boaz Dvir doesn’t have to imagine. It happened to him.
His grandfather, Ozer Grundman, told him that his Mauser rifle, which he used during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, bore not only the hated Nazi symbol, but the wreathed eagle that formed another symbol of Hitler’s regime.
“Do you know where we got these Nazi rifles?” he asked his grandson.
The riddle drew Dvir on a years-long quest for the answer — a quest crowned with success later as a documentary: A Wing and a Prayer. The film tells a little-known chapter of World War II: how American and Canadian veterans smuggled tons of weapons — from rifles to whole planes — to the nascent Jewish state for its first struggle to survive.
Released in 2015, the hour-long documentary has been screened in places like New York, Paris, Philadelphia and Jaipur, India, as well as over PBS. And today (Nov. 11) and Sunday (Nov. 13), it’s scheduled as part of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. (See details below.)
It’s clearly become something of a personal cause for Dvir, 49, a journalist, and educator.
“I wondered, how this story have been ignored all this time?” he said in an interview. “I’m eager for it to become part of our understanding of history. And it’s getting there.”
A Wing and a Prayer tells of Americans and Canadians who helped save Israel in its 1948 War of Independence. Knowing Israel was outgunned and outnumbered, the volunteers bought not only surplus American items, like B17 bombers, but surplus Nazi items from Czechoslovakia, like Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter planes — and Mauser rifles, like Dvir’s grandfather’s firearm.
The task was full of dangers — not only from Israel’s Arab enemies, but from the U.S. government, which had passed the Neutrality Act to keep out of the brewing conflict. To pull it off, the small knot of men launched an elaborate scheme of quiet fundraising, dummy corporations, shadowy contacts and daring flights in rickety planes. They finally got the gear to Israel just as the 1948 war broke out.
Dvir tells the story through archival photos and war footage, plus narration by actor William Baldwin. He also interviews some of those who carried out the mission. Click here to see a clip.
A second-generation Sabra, or native Israeli, Dvir was born in Petah Tikvah, near Tel Aviv. He came to the United States in 1980 and worked for various newspapers, including the South Florida Sun Sentinel while I was the religion editor.
Dvir also has worked as a writer for New York Newsday and editor at the Jacksonville Business Journal. And in 1994, he produced a study of Jewish spirituality before, during and after the Holocaust under a grant from the Religion News Service.
In 2003, he went into academia, first in the School of Journalism at the University of Florida, then his current position as assistant professor of journalism at Penn State. He also lectures on documentaries and multimedia there.
Meanwhile, he kept digging into his grandfather’s question and decided in 2008 to produce a film on it. The project cost $130,000, much of it from travel expenses to Israel, Canada, Europe and around the U.S. Besides his own pocket, he got grants from the likes of the Jewish Federation of Greater Miami.
Dvir finally finished A Wing and a Prayer last year, and PBS aired it that April. He was elated to learn that it came in at #7 for PBS programs that month.
He has personally shown it to roughly 6,000 people in 20 screenings; others, including Jewish organizations, have screened the film independently in hundreds of other events. All told, he estimates, some two million people have seen A Wing and a Prayer via the various venues.
Aiding future research
Although the film title sounds spiritual, Dvir, like many in his generation, isn’t especially religious. He’s not a synagogue member and attends mainly on occasions like the High Holy Days. And as a boy, he studied the 1948 war in a secular school that gave secular explanations for the Israeli victory.
But ever since boyhood, he’s thought there was “something bigger at play” in the Israeli victory — a notion that has only been reinforced as the tale he retells in A Wing and a Prayer.
“You could say it wasn’t God, it was these guys. And yes, they were superheroes. But still, they needed something else to help them. They had the State Department, the FBI and MI5 on their tail. They had planes that should have crashed and burned.
“I get the sense that God was with them.”
With the film finally in the can, Dvir is thinking about how to follow up. He has a dream of an interactive website, which would include a locator map plus outtake clips from the main film. He would make his findings freely available, to the public as well as to scholars for future research.
“I would just want the knowledge spread,” he says.
Besides shedding light on little-known history, Dvir has several distinct goals for showing A Wing and a Prayer.
One is to show that you can’t always accept what official histories relate. “Things are not always as they seem,” he says.
Another goal is to inspire young people. “These guys [in the documentary] were in their teens and 20s, and they fought the biggest war in history. Then, when they’d paid their dues, they changed history again, still in their 20s.”
His final stated goal is evident in the making of A Wing and a Prayer itself: commitment.
“People always say, ‘Believe in yourself,’ ” he says. “To me, it’s not about believing in yourself. It’s about believing in the work, in the story, in having it done right.”
If you go
A Wing and a Prayer will be shown twice this weekend for the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.
First showing will be 6 p.m. today (Nov. 11) at the Sunrise Civic Center, 10610 W. Oakland Park Blvd., Sunrise.
The film also will be shown at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, at Savor Cinema, 503 SE 6th St., Fort Lauderdale.
Tickets for each showing are $6-$11. For information, call 954-525-3456 or go to the Film Festival website.
Pentecost, the day that Christians say the Holy Spirit of God descended on the first believers, is celebrated in churches worldwide today. On this day, according to the New Testament, the apostles of Jesus saw the Spirit in the shape of “tongues of fire,” giving them power to preach and evangelize.
Taking its name from its timing, just short of 50 days after Easter Sunday, Pentecost is often called the “birthday of the church.” Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans celebrate the day with bright red vestments and church trappings, symbolizing the flame of the Spirit.
— JAMES D. DAVIS
The world’s 200 million-plus Eastern Orthodox Christians will celebrate tomorrow as Easter, the day Jesus rose from the dead, several weeks after their fellow believers in Roman Catholic and …
The world’s 200 million-plus Eastern Orthodox Christians will celebrate tomorrow as Easter, the day Jesus rose from the dead, several weeks after their fellow believers in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.
The founding events are the same: Three days after Jesus’ corpse was entombed, women came to embalm it, but found the tomb open and empty. Jesus then appeared to them, then to his disciples, then to crowds of hundreds, before ascending into heaven.
However, the Eastern churches — Greek, Russian, Antiochian and other branches — calculate the date for Easter after the Julian calendar under a formula no longer used by Western churches.
At most Orthodox churches, the observances will start with the Resurrection Service tonight. At midnight, the pastor carries a lighted candle in the darkened sanctuary to proclaim, “Come, receive the light from the light that is never overtaken by night …”
The flame is passed on to his congregants’ candles. Then the pastor and choir sing hymns outside the church and return for the Pascha, the Easter liturgy. Sunday worship features an Agapé service, in which the biblical story of Jesus’ resurrection is read in several languages.
Greek Orthodox churches will bless and distribute red eggs at the end of the service to symbolize the resurrection.
— JAMES D. DAVIS