Bethlehem family feels draw of living in the town of Jesus' birth

Palestinian Melkite Catholics Peter and Eli Hosh prepare meat in the kitchen of their restaurant, Abu Eli, in Bethlehem, West Bank, Dec. 8, 2019. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) -- Brothers Peter and Eli Hosh grew up knowing that their hometown was not only the place where they went to school and ran down to the corner market for their mother, but the town where Jesus was born.

It is a lesson they and their two sisters continue to teach their own children, especially during the Christmas season.

"I feel that here there is something great here. We are living in a holy place," said Eli Hosh, who, at 48 is the elder of the two. "Bethlehem is important for our family, and I tell that to my children. Jesus was born here. I always feel the holiness here, this is my city, but the best time in Bethlehem is Christmas."

Unlike many other Christian families in the Bethlehem area, none of the Hosh siblings have moved abroad.

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"The most important thing is for the local Christians to stay," said Peter Hosh, 33, the youngest of the siblings. "Year by year we see less Christian (families) here. Why? It is difficult everywhere. We have hard things in life, we know, but we have to stay here and fix that. You leave and you have to start from zero; here we have our family, our work. Everybody knows each other."

Two of Eli Hosh's daughters are studying at universities abroad in Europe.

"Of course they will come back. Bethlehem is important for our whole family, and we know we need to stay," he said.

Together the two brothers, who are Melkite Catholics, run one of Bethlehem's most well-known grilled-meat restaurants, Abu Eli. It was founded in 1999 by their late father, Anton. "Abu Eli" means the father of Eli in Arabic, and traditionally Palestinian men are given the nickname of "father of" after their first-born son. The restaurant is a favorite of local Christians for Christmas Eve dinner, and many tourists visiting over the holiday have also discovered its charms.

This year Peter Hosh said he is able to experience the wonder of Christmas through the eyes of his 3-year-old daughter, Yasmin, who is now beginning to understand the concept of the holiday and that she is living in the place where Jesus was born.

"My mother came over to help us start celebrating and decorating. This season is so special, and my daughter has been asking us to decorate already. We (adults) have a glass of wine, and we enjoy ourselves," he said. "Every time we tell my daughter that the story of Christmas took place here, she begins to sing a song she learned at her nursery school."

They bake ginger cookies and special Christmas fruit cake, or buy them at one of the local bakeries for seasonal treats, he said.

Katherine Hosh, 70, said she is proud that all her children have remained in the city.

"I don't want anyone of my children to leave," she said. For her, as a Christian in Bethlehem, it is a privilege to be able to go to Mass at St. Catherine Church, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity. "I pray every Sunday."

Eli and Peter Hosh said they never felt the need to leave Bethlehem for long. Peter Hosh completed all his academic studies, including his B.A. in hotel management, at Bethlehem University.

"I travel abroad, but I can't stay away from Bethlehem for more than a week," he said. "If I am away longer, I don't feel well. I feel more comfortable here than any place in the world. Maybe there is something secret here. Maybe this is a sign that there is something special here. ... I feel this is our city, our town."

Despite the political difficulties, he said, life for him in Bethlehem is good. Everyone knows everyone and greets each other on the street.

Abu Eli welcomes everybody, Peter Hosh said, and he recalled how, before the intifada, the restaurant attracted many Jewish patrons on Saturdays.

On Christmas Eve, the restaurant serves fukura, a festive lamb and potato stew that has been cooked for five hours in a covered clay pot on the charcoal flame. The Hoshes put on Christmas music and welcome Christian families celebrating the holiday.

"We feel very happy, you see many people coming here and enjoying themselves and feeling happy. We have known the families for a long time, and you feel like you are a part of their celebration, and you enjoy with them," said Peter Hosh. "It is not just working. When we finish (serving) we sit down and join them and have a drink and talk."

Since Christmas Eve is the busiest day of the year for the restaurant, the Hosh family celebrates Christmas together the following day. They go to mass at St. Catherine Church and then have lunch, which the Hosh sisters have prepared.

"I like this tradition," said Peter. "We visit the church and pray. It is a special day."

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