Family man, not elves, behind Christmas treasures in Bethlehem

BEIT SAHOUR — Pilgrims and tourists buy souvenirs to remember their visit to the Holy Land, but for Ghassan Qumsieh, the trinkets are his form of survival.

Qumsieh, born in Palestine, got up from the dinner table eager to show his family’s guests – us, two Americans, and our teacher, Professor Haroon Moghul – his creation.

“One minute, one minute,” he said in English slowly. Qumsieh walked across the kitchen and retrieved a miniature nativity scene from a shelf. He placed it near our dinner plates, which were now cleaned after a few helpings of makloubeh, a dish of rice with cauliflower and potatoes, served with chicken and a side of yogurt.

The main dish: makluheh, made with rice, cauliflower and potatoes. (Godland News / Liz Donovan)

Qumsieh, an Orthodox Catholic, takes pride in his craft. He proudly presented one of his nativity pieces – complete with baby Jesus and wise men figurines. Using various motions like a game of Charades, and the English he knows, he explained how he carefully cut the pieces and glued them together to create tourist treasures. He twisted the star at the top of the wooden barn site and a slow melody began to play.

Qumsieh’s days begin early and end late. After an 11-hour workday at his shop, he will sometimes come home, take a quick nap, and work on various trinkets until 1 a.m. This time of the year, with Easter approaching, the job is more arduous, as more tourists and pilgrims visit Bethlehem. But more business, more money.

“Life here is very expensive,” he told us.

His earnings support the home he bought about a decade ago – a modest but cozy three-bedroom fifth-floor unit in Beit Sahour, a little town outside of Bethlehem. The living room is adorned with Christian memorabilia, like a larger-than-life rosary tucked behind a family photo, an assortment of plants, and a picture of Jesus. The coffee table is lined with charms from his workshop, packaged and ready for the Easter crowds. On the kitchen counter sits a large box of wooden crosses and accessories yet to be glued together. “I’m very happy here,” he tells us.

Completed olive wood necklaces – often the result of a late night's work – line the coffee table at the Qumsieh home. (Godland News / Liz Donovan)

It wasn’t an easy journey. Qumsieh was forced to leave the country for Jordan after the Six-Day War in 1967. He worked day and night at a minimart to start a new life only to repeat the process after his father died and he returned to the West Bank.

But his tenacity has paid off, a fact that’s apparent by interacting with his daughters – two confident and ambitious teens, who served both as hosts and, after Professor Moghul departed, our translators for the rest of evening when their parents’ English failed. Siwar is a boisterous and confident 14-year-old, who enjoys cooking – a skill she learned from watching “Top Chef” on television. “I want to be a chef,” she says, briefly glancing up from her cell phone. Her older sister, Nadine, 18, graduates this year from high school. Thanks to the hard work by Qumsieh and his wife, Rula, a history teacher, Nadine will go on to college, where she plans to study hotel management.

Qumsieh holds his hand-crafted nativity scene. (Godland News / Liz Donovan)

His fatherly instincts transferred over to his houseguests, too. “You’re my daughters, too,” he told us. When we left the next morning, he gifted us each with two of his Christian ornaments. As he plucked them in our hands, he smiled and said, “So you will remember me.”


To kiss a cloud of witnesses: Icons on the Lower East Side

NEW YORK — The first thing Maggie Downham does when she enters the inner sanctuary of the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection is kiss the icons.

Encased in a simple wooden frame on a pillar directly in front of the iconostasis, the wall separating the nave from the altar, is the icon of the day.

Downham stands before the small table propping up the image and makes the sign of the cross. Three fingers to the forehead, brought down to the stomach, taken over to the right shoulder and then to the left. She bows with her waist, her right hand open and touches the carpeted floor. Rising back to her upward position, she gently touches the contours of the icon and kisses first the feet and then the hands of the subject.

“The icon represents the presence of the sainthood, of a cloud of witnesses,” she said.

Icons can vary in length – the two-dimensional paintings plastered onto the iconostasis stretch upwards of several feet – but this one is the size of a framed family photo. It does contain a family of sorts. Beneath the glass, with the light of the surrounding candles flickering off its golden-hued glint, are dozens upon dozens of figures with haloes. In the center is a Russian Orthodox cross with its three crossbeams, and the background is filled with the domes of the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow. Its title: “Russian martyrs of the Soviet era.”

Once Downham has finished, she drifts off to the outer reaches of the church, repeating her metania, the series of prostration described above, before kissing other icons.

“We have a personal devotion to particular saints,” she said. “I try to center myself in front of the Virgin. But as I walk around, I go to whatever icon I feel connected with.”

The veneration of icons is considered by Eastern Orthodox Christians as a form of prayer and a conduit to deeper forms of spiritual reality.

“When worshippers pray in front of an icon, fundamentally they are looking at a mirror of themselves because we all share in the image of Christ,” said Richard Schneider, professor of iconology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers.

Icons have been central to the Christian imagination since at least the third century C.E. Yet throughout the early centuries of Christianity, there was constant tension between the distinction of venerating an icon or actually worshipping it.

“We don’t worship icons. They’re representations, like sermons. They open up to us understanding of the mystery. Because you also arrange them in the church, that order reveals a theology and a point about time,” Schneider said.

The icon of each day is pegged to the Orthodox liturgical calendar which typically celebrates the feast days of different saints. This cycle of change is contrasted with the plastered icons on the iconostasis, images which remain unchanging and eternal.

For Juliana Federoff, icons act as reminders.

“Icons are the connecting point between my worship on the weekend in the church and during the week at home. In both places I’m surrounded by them, and they help me understand life itself as worship to God.”

Even though Downham tends to venerate the icons near the beginning of the service, many will wander towards the images during other parts of the service.

This is because behavior at Orthodox services is much less scripted. “It’s strangely loose. It’s very respectful, but it doesn’t have a rigidity to it,” Schneider said.

Given the central role of icons in Orthodox worship – of how the images are touched, kissed, nudged, and felt – there aren’t many from Byzantine times and most in circulation were created in the 19th and 20th centuries.

But Schneider is okay with the predicament.

“There’s a lot of competition between churches and museums about who gets to keep the icons. The curators say they’ll get ruined, they’re kissed all the time and candles are burning. But icons are like people. They’re born, they flourish, and they die. Just like people.”


Heart and hand in Coptic Queens

NEW YORK — Outside, it was a quiet and nearly frigid Saturday morning in Queens – distinguished only, and only maybe, by being the day before the Super Bowl. But inside Ridgewood’s 606 Woodward Avenue, where the St. Mary & St. Antonios Coptic Orthodox Church sits stalwart but muted in monochrome brick, it was the holy 26th day of the month of Tubah.

A monitor hanging above the pews projected that date along with split-screen transcriptions of the assigned liturgical texts: English on the left, Arabic on the right. From a sidelined podium, adolescent boys read quickly, without looking up, through passages from Hebrews and Peter. “If you endure chastening,” read the first boy, “God deals with you as with sons.” His muffled delivery suggested a plea for that eventual payoff.

The readings shifted from forced to fluid as Abouna Eshak chanted the primary section, Matthew 4:23—5:16, in Arabic from the central podium. Altar boys flanked him with candles, and the words floated out from behind a literal, pungent fog. They graced the ears as burning incense tickled the nostrils, lending the words some kind of multidimensional body.

In these short verses, Jesus travels throughout Galilee teaching in synagogues and healing the sick, drawing and healing crowds of “those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed” from as far away as Jordan. In time, the crowds become overwhelming and Jesus resolves to address them from a mountainside, where he recites the eight Beatitudes from his famous Sermon on the Mount. The selection includes blessings for “those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” and for “the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Abouna Eshak delivered his sermon in alternating Arabic and English. These verses, he said, are key in separating Christ from the Jews who preceded him. Those earlier Jews, said the Abouna, only valued deeds – not what was in “the hearts of the people.” Jesus, in other words, demonstrated an innovative concern for thought, or faith, or words – his eyes saw beyond mere actions. The words that constitute the eight Beatitudes come, Abouna said, “from all the branches of life.”

They are themselves a life force, he continued, compelling their continued recitation all these 2,000 years later. To drive the point home, Abouna worked his way up to reciting the sixth Beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

However frequently or not Abouna Eshak hits this theme, it made sense in a sanctuary that surrounds its congregants with words from the Bible: plaques above the left pews, right pews, and entrance announce verses from Isaiah 56:7, Genesis 28:16 and Genesis 28:17.

But his celebration of words felt detached from his rather soporific, rote delivery. Throughout most of the service, the congregation was a mix of standers and sitters. During the sermon, however, everyone sat and some seemed disengaged: texting, entering and exiting, and looking down short of bowing their heads in prayer. The words floated passively throughout the room and seemed to be over almost as soon as they had started. The sermon induced a palpable loss of energy between the moments that both preceded and followed it: the theatrical ritual of chanting the verses through a haze of incense and – ironically enough –the performative, action-based symbolic exchange between neighbors in the pews.

I was hastily – and apparently quite visibly – completing my notes on Abouna’s sermon when the three men closest to me turned to swipe their hands with mine. One by one, we stuck our hands out horizontally towards one another’s, alternated them until they were clasped, and slid them slowly apart. Noting my ignorance, one of the men explained that the gesture means “we ask forgiveness from each other.”

Abouna was not the only teacher present, and words were not the only tools of faith in use.