In the hills of the Galilee, the lush region in the Holy Land where it’s said that Jesus Christ grew up, residents of the town of Jish are preparing to celebrate Christmas Mass in the language Jesus spoke.
A handful of people from Jish are at the centre of an effort to revive the Aramaic language — centuries after it all but disappeared from the Middle East.
“It moves me very much when I hear Aramaic,” said kindergarten teacher Neveen Elias. “When I pray in Aramaic, I am feel I am so near Jesus.”
Maronite Christians in Jish celebrate part of their liturgies in Aramaic during services at St. Maroun Church, which takes its name from the fifth-century monk who founded the Maronite movement, which is still active in the Middle East, mainly in Lebanon and Syria.
Jish, which sits just a few kilometres south of Israel’s border with Lebanon, is a mixed town where 60 per cent of residents are Christian. The rest are Muslim.
‘We still pray in it’
Shadi Khalloul is the man behind the revival of Aramaic. While he remembers hearing the language in childhood, Khalloul said he didn’t really take notice of it until he was studying Bible literature at the University of Las Vegas.
“My instructor was a Catholic instructor, and he said to us as students, ‘Don’t think that Jesus spoke Spanish or English or French or Latin … he spoke Aramaic, a language that disappeared,” Khalloul said.
“So I felt offended. I immediately raised my hand and said, ‘Excuse me, instructor, but the language still exists. We still speak it, we still pray in it.'”
Khalloul said he did not blame his instructor for thinking Aramaic was dead, adding that it’s “the fault of the people who still carry this language” for not letting the world know Aramaic is still alive and well.
That set Khalloul on his mission — now a decade old — to raise the profile of Aramaic.
The school in Jish is the only place in Israel where students are taught in Aramaic. Khalloul established the language training in the school, where about 120 children receive several hours of language instruction every week.
“We are also doing a Sunday school. We have Aramaic summer camps, and we also help do recitals or concerts in Syriac Aramaic,” said Khalloul, a former Israeli army captain who founded the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association.
The Maronites hail from Mount Lebanon. After world powers carved up the Middle East in the aftermath of the First World War, Maronites were meant to be given a homeland in modern-day Lebanon. But civil war and sectarianism have spread adherents around the world, with large communities of Maronites now calling Brazil, Argentina and even Canada home.
About 11,000 Maronites live in Israel.
While Khalloul estimates that only two families in Jish — his and his brother’s — speak Aramaic as a first language, what he really wants is to establish a town in Israel populated solely by Aramaic speakers.
That would help, he said, deal with a dark chapter in the community’s past.
Many Maronites living in the Holy Land called the village of Biram home. But they were displaced by the Israeli army during the country’s war of independence in 1948. The military ordered residents to leave Biram, telling them they could return in two weeks.
Unable to return home
That never happened. Many resettled in the nearby Arab town of Jish.
But Khalloul said he’s optimistic the Israeli government will give the go ahead for a new village, where they can “preserve their language and their identity.”
The more immediate focus in Jish is getting ready for Christmas.
The church is decorated with a glowing tree that towers over the town, where streets are lit up in festive colours at night. On the main road there’s a thriving Christmas store — a rare sight in Israel and the Palestinian territories, outside of Bethlehem.
Neveen Elias has been practising her Aramaic, as she’ll be singing in the church choir during the Christmas mass. At home, she leads her three children in traditional Aramaic songs.
“It’s the language of Jesus, and it makes the prayers so special,” she said.
‘Language is also culture’
Shadi Khalloul and his children, wife and parents will also attend midnight mass at St. Maroun Church this year.
He’ll be looking up at the dome, where the Lord’s Prayer is inscribed in Aramaic — a reminder of the accomplishments of the people from his town.
“Language is not only a way of communicating with others,” he said. “Language is also culture, it’s identity. If I don’t preserve my language and don’t respect it, how you would be able to respect me?”