This past weekend, the New Paltz United Methodist Church led visitors to a recreated Town of Bethlehem as it was just before the birth of Jesus. Upon passing the threshold of lit lanterns outside the Church, visitors crossed through the “desert” as depicted by the beautiful photographs by Julie Lillis inside the sanctuary. Then they were met by a “tax collector,” played by Carol Roper, who registered them and asked them to pay their taxes. She was guarded by a Roman soldier so that no one could rob her or refuse to pay up. Pastor Bette Sohm was the person who set the scene for visitors as they entered the Church by reading a passage from the Bible and explaining what life might have been like in the Town of Bethlehem prior to the birth of Jesus.
The idea behind “A Night in Bethlehem” came from Sohm and her husband, who had worked on something similar “years ago in Staten Island. My husband approached the Church to see if they might be interested in doing it, and they said ‘Yes!’” They were able to get many of the set pieces from their former church in Staten Island, volunteers to play the various parts, and over the course of the three-day “trek to Bethlehem” they received no fewer than 75 visitors.
“That’s pretty wonderful for a first-time event,” said Pastor Sohm, who said that her hope was that “A Night in Bethlehem” would “keep us in Advent, with that feeling of anticipation and waiting and not rushing to the birth, to ponder what it might have been like with the rumors spreading of a Messiah about to be born — some believing it, some fearing it — and the talk of the town, which was busy with everyone coming to register and pay their taxes by decree of the land.”
Once the tax collector registered visitors, they were led to a small synagogue, set up in similar fashion to what existed at that time. There was a volunteer playing the rabbi who welcomed people in, explaining that this was a small synagogue, that they were often built on a hill so that they could be seen. He said, “There were typically three benches for worship, with men having to sit on one side and women on the other. The women were not allowed to speak, and if there were not at least ten men present, then the service was not considered to be a ‘formal’ service.” He talked more about the types of services, how the Torah might have been kept and protected, and then encouraged visitors to enjoy the Town of Bethlehem.
As they walked downstairs, visitors saw a stone sculpture to symbolize “Rachel’s Monument” by Jacob and her children. Down below, the Church basement was transformed into a Bethlehem Main Street with spice and rug merchants, a bakery and inn, weavers, a storyteller and beggars. Pastor Sohm told visitors that if they met the storyteller, they should say that Salomé had told them that she had something for them (a cloth bag filled with coins for going shopping in Bethlehem town.)
A potter was working on a small pinch-pot that she hoped that the spice merchant would be interested in. “There seems to be a lot going on in town,” she said. “Everyone is very excited about the bright star in the sky. There are many rumors. Some say it is nothing; others believe that a messiah will be born. I believe it must be something good.”
At the inn, visitors were treated to hot soup, cheese and fruit with their coins and allowed to rest from their journey. One of these was former teacher and longtime volunteer firefighter Charlie Karsten. Asked what he thought of the bright star in the sky, he said, “It’s fantastic. It must signify something very special.”
The weavers explained that they were looking for apprentices because all of their workers had returned to their own towns to register and pay taxes. “We will take on apprentices, and promise them three meals a day and lodging in return,” said a woman who was weaving yarn on a wooden loom. “If they stay with us for two years, then they will be promised a job!”
The baker offered delicious sugarcoated dates with almonds inside, as well as matzoh that she made right there. “It’s been busy in town, lots of talk, lots of rumors. It’s good to have people shopping here and getting excited about the large star in the sky!”
As one crowd was leaving, Nathan Roper said, “Be careful of the shepherds. I hear they’re a tough group. Safe travels!”