Not every church would host thousands of Israelis twice a year for a series of classical concerts.
The Benedictine and Kiryat Yearim churches in the Muslim village of Abu Ghosh are not, however, typical houses of Christian worship. Run by small orders of Catholic nuns and monks, they have both been in existence for many years, forging their version of coexistence in this hilltop town outside Jerusalem.
This year, they are celebrating a quarter century as the hosts of the annual Abu Ghosh music festival, a bi-annual week of choral and classical music that takes place during the Jewish festivals of Sukkot in the fall and Shavuot in the spring, under the soaring ceilings and in the peaceful gardens of the two neighboring churches.
It works because of several characters who together created the annual event, including an Italian nun, a French-born Benedictine monk and a Jewish promoter who figured out how to work together on this unlikely event.
“The story is all about how you behave,” said Gershon Cohen, the 76-year-old Israeli festival promoter from nearby Moshav Shoeva who first wandered into Abu Ghosh 25 years ago. “And you have to know how to talk to people.”
It was Cohen, then a physical education teacher who produced festivals on the side, who had the idea of putting together a music festival in the spacious grounds of the Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant. It was a concept that had occurred to others before him, but what mattered most, he said, was his chemistry with one particular nun at the convent.
“We clicked,” he said. “We understood each other.”
The nun was then in residence at the convent of the Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant, built in 1924 on ground holy to Christians as a stopping point for the ark that reportedly passed through the area on the way to Jerusalem. There is a simple and spacious church with high, soaring ceilings and a small square of mosaic tiles that dates back to the 1200s, said Cohen.
A blindingly white statue of the Madonna with child rises up imposingly from the hill where the church sits, overlooking the village of Abu Ghosh.
The statue is visible below from St. Mary of the Resurrection Abbey, the monastery in Abu Ghosh run by the Olivetan Benedictine order, just down the hill from the convent.
Brother Olivier, another partner to Cohen’s festival, has lived at the Benedictine monastery for the last 39 years. He has an unusual history, born to a secular French family in the suburbs of Paris, then adopting the Catholic faith and coming to Israel, where he eventually became a citizen, albeit a non-Jewish one.
“You’re a pioneer,” quipped Cohen to Brother Olivier, as the two sat in the terraced gardens of the monastery, a trickling brook beside them, pink and white lily pads floating gently on its surface.
Brother Olivier, dressed in a tan robe with a wide, brown leather belt, smiled quietly, his gardening clippers and phone resting in his lap. He was sent to Israel when he was a young monk of 27, after thinking and dreaming about the Jewish state in the years since he first saw the movie “Exodus” at the age of 13, a film that made him consider living life according to one’s ideals.
When he landed in Israel in 1977, it was on July 10, the same day that the Exodus ship had arrived in Israel 30 years earlier.
“I don’t believe that anything happens by chance,” he said.
The Benedictine order has been in Abu Ghosh since the late 1800s, in the Muslim village known for remaining neutral during Israel’s War of Independence, and for offering passage to Jerusalem during the Arab siege on the main road to the capital.
“It’s our luck that we landed in this village, with the understanding and tolerant neighbors of Abu Ghosh,” said Brother Olivier.
The order in Abu Ghosh is an island of Catholicism, a peaceful oasis where half a dozen monks live and study, reciting the entirety of Psalms in Hebrew each week, and working in a garden that wasn’t much more than a collection of olive trees and a lone fig tree until Brother Olivier arrived.
Their early Gothic-style church is located in the grounds of the Church of the Resurrection, built by Crusaders in the 12th century atop Roman ruins. The Crusaders historically assumed that the village was built on the site of Emmaus from the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament, known for its tale of hospitality to a stranger who appeared to be the resurrected Jesus.
The order is dedicated to welcoming guests, and does so daily, inviting tourists, school groups and even Israeli army units onto its grounds.
It’s not the task of the monks to build relations with the community, and there is a certain sense of separation between the order that resides along a main road of the village, and the community of people who live there. Yet Abu Ghosh taxi drivers regularly park their cars in the lot of the church during the day, when they’re heading to afternoon prayers at the nearby mosque.
And as Brother Olivier recounted, he learned a lot of his Hebrew from the Muslims of Abu Ghosh. Now a fluent Hebrew speaker like his fellow monks, he has dedicated his life to forging a relationship between his Catholicism and the Jewish state, requesting Israeli citizenship until he was granted it by a special order in 2005.
“I might be stupid, but I’m an optimistic person,” said Brother Olivier. “I believe that this is how you build relations.”
There was always a demand to hold concerts on the grounds of the church, but the monks didn’t want to, he said, fearing an invasion of their privacy.
“It’s a monastery,” he said, smiling. “You can’t bother the routine.”
But when Gershon Cohen came along, with his garrulous charm and sparkling blue eyes, the monks agreed that holding concerts in the grounds would be a fine symbol of friendship and welcome.
“Jews coming to a Muslim community to hear music in a Christian church,” said Brother Olivier. “It’s a small, white pebble in the path that we want.”
What works, said the priest, is that Cohen is respectful of what is and isn’t acceptable to the monks, always asking and never demanding.
They’re clearly good friends, as Cohen nudges Brother Olivier’s sandal-shod foot, and asks what brand they are. “Chacos,” said the monk. “I just got them.”
The festival used to hold some of the concerts inside the Church of the Resurrection, but when the monks decided they weren’t as comfortable with that, the performances were relocated downstairs, to the ancient crypt built over the spring for which Emmaus, (the Greek and Latin word for warm spring) was named, and where 150 people can be seated.
The trick, said Cohen, is to figure out what will bring guests while not alienating the privacy-seeking monks and nuns. There are also the obvious benefits of engaging with the residents of Abu Ghosh, who don’t generally go to the concerts, but do benefit from the overflow of visitors to their famous hummus restaurants and cafes during the festival.
As Cohen likes to say, no one ate hummus in Abu Ghosh — a common weekend activity for many Israelis — before he began arranging the festivals. He also takes credit for paving the road that leads up to the Church of Our Lady, and installing the air conditioning units that now cool the church.
“The festival changed everything, it brought people here,” he said, briefly breaking off our conversation to exchange greetings with a town official. “Everyone knows me here, I even gave money to the new mosque.”
Some 6,000 people pass through Abu Ghosh on festival days, coming to hear more than a dozen different choral and classical concerts held in and around the two churches.
One of the conductors for the fall festival is Myrna Herzog, a Brazilian-born cellist who will conduct Verdi’s opera Nabucco at the Church of Our Lady.
It’s one of her favorite performances of the year.
“Gershon is willing to take risks,” she said. “My task is to bring out what was composed in this amazing work of music, offering a completely unabridged edition, in this space.”
The performers in the festival are a mix of Israelis and visiting musicians, with most concerts held in the Crypt or church, and a few special performances of jazz, oud and more contemporary works taking place in the gardens and patios of the church above, overlooking the views of the hills and villages below.
And where will Brother Olivier be during the event? He’ll be around, but he’s always glad when it’s over.
“Sometimes it’s hard to open our home,” he said. “I would rather be in my garden.”
Abu Ghosh Festival, October 21-24, tickets available through the website.
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