Israel Festival: dancing with Eyal Golan

At the end of a long day of festivities Sunday, the crowd screamed as Israeli singer Eyal Golan wrapped an Israel flag around his body on stage at Rancho Park’s Cheviot Hills Recreation Center.

Golan, whose good looks have helped solidify his pop star-status in Israel, also let the music show his pride in the Jewish State at the lavish Celebrate Israel festival,the first such event organized by the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC). Combining Middle Eastern influences, Western pop and Hebrew lyrics. Golan performed up-tempo Mizrahi songs and ballads, and the crowd of thousands fueled the energy.

As the people upfront in the V.I.P. section clamored to get as close to Golan as possible, security tried to keep them from getting in the way of the camera boom operator. The scene was chaotic but joyous: guys cuddled their girlfriends singing along with Golan; adults and children waved Israeli flags, creating a sea of blue-and-white, and everyone, young and old, danced to Golan’s beats, rhythms and harmonies.

Golan’s performance was the moment when the largely Israeli group came together to celebrate Israel’s 64th birthday.

“It’s just really incredible and inspiring, and it just makes you feel so happy to know that you are part of a community and it’s such a strong and loving community that really stands for Israel,” said Lian Kimia, program manager at the Israeli Leadership Council.

The event drew 15,000 people during the course of the day, Israeli singer Gilat Rapaport, the main stage’s master of ceremonies, announced toward the end of the festival. A few hours earlier, Kimia had estimated that 9,000 tickets had been scanned.

Whatever the number, the event, which is estimated to have cost more than $800,000, kept a lively pace, starting at 9 a.m. with a Salute to Israel Walk organized by StandWithUs and ending at 7 p.m. with Golan’s performance. Vocalist Monique Benabou, faith-rocker Craig Taubman, the Israel band Hanadnedot and the children’s MATI Choir performed on three stages placed at some distance from one another in the park.

Speakers included Israel Consul General David Siegel; Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles CEO Jay Sanderson; San Fernando Valley congressman Brad Sherman and Howard Berman and ILC board members Shawn Evenhaim and Naty Saidoff, who also chaired the festival.

Kids rode rides and won stuffed-animals at carnival-games, while pita and falafel stands with seemingly endless lines served up Israeli cuisine. Lines of booths showcased various Israeli and Jewish community organizations including Federation, Birthright Israel, Chabad, the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), Stand With Us, the Jewish Journal and others.

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Video by Ryan Torok, edited by Jeffrey Hensiek

Siegel praised Israel as “a nation of 8 million in the heart of the Middle East,” saying, “You ain’t see nothing yet” of Israeli innovation before wishing the crowd “a Yom HaAtzmaut sameach.”

Other representatives at the ceremony included Los Angeles City Council members Paul Koretz, Jan Perry, Dennis Zine and Bill Rosendahl, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, City Controller Wendy Greuel and Assemblyman Mike Feuer. Radio host Michael Medved hosted.

Cost of tickets was $19 for adults and $12 for kids, with reduced prices offered online. Despite tight security, approximately 100 people snuck in, according to a private security guard. “It’s inevitable, but everyone should pay their share,” Kimia said. Los Angeles Police Department officials were on hand, reporting no incidents other than a few children temporarily separated from their parents.

Because the festival was held on several acres sprawled out on baseball fields and grassy areas, some areas felt empty at times. The “spiritual pavilion,” the DJ stage and Israeli dancing-area failed to draw large numbers.

But the most agreed the community had turned out to mark the occasion. “It’s like the one event throughout the whole year that the whole Israeli community in Los Angeles comes together and has something to celebrate,” said Saper Azulay, 18, of Sherman Oaks. Azulay is president of the Israeli Scouts Los Angeles division, which had a presence at the event, and he was with his mother, Michelle, who said she came to “meet friends and to show support” for Israel and the live music was her favorite part.

At 4 p.m., just before the performance by Benabou, a contestant the current season of NBC’s “The Voice,” throngs of attendees overflowed the main-stage tent. Families and friends lay on blankets on the grass, in the sun, munching on snacks, alongside baby strollers and kids playing with blown-up toys and young adults and teenagers in sunglasses, tank-tops, shorts and short skirts, drinking energy drinks and wearing Israeli flags as scarves. Hebrew chatter filled the air, blending with a beat blaring from the nearby DJ stage.

Late in the afternoon, 27-year-old Barak Suisa, a contractor from Reseda and friend of the vocalist of Israeli rock band Hanadnedot, which performed around 2:30 p.m. on the “Café Tel-Aviv “ stage, watched as his two buddies played against each other at the “backgammon station.”

“Every year I’m waiting for this festival, so I was really disappointed when they didn’t do anything [last year],” he said. “This is the best. It’s clean, more organized, there are more stages and it’s just more fun.”

Roy Bendor, vocalist of Hadadenot (Hebrew for “The Swings”), relaxed on a grassy knoll nearby before he was scheduled to perform, hanging with his fiancée, Rafaeli.

“We’re enjoying it very much,” Bendor said.

Nearby, a small crowd gathered at the Hummus Bar and Grill, calling out to the Israeli cooks making sandwiches in front of customers’ eyes to hold the Tahini, to put more Tahini on and asking if it was kosher. Earlier, parachutists from the Golden Stars Skydiving Team flew in toward the main stage, turning festivalgoers’ heads skyward. The banging of bongos and tambourines came across the field from a drum circle.

Calabasas mother Sharona Jacobs, who attended with her 15-year-old daughter Avia and her daughter’s friend, Andrea, was waiting in the lengthy line for falafels. Originally from Israel, Jacobs has been in Los Angeles with her family for 10 years, and she and her daughter have attended six Israeli Independence Day festivals. She was tired of waiting in line for food, but she was also happy with the literature from the StandWithUs tent that she’d picked up, which will be informative for her daughter who attends Calabasas High, she said, and with the old Judaica that she’d browsed at NCJW’s thrift-store tent. For Jacobs, the positives of the festival outweighed the negatives.

“Every year, we’re going to come to the festival, regardless of the lines and the cutting, because it’s worth it,” she said.

“This place is literally like Israel, and Israeli is my favorite place,” her daughter, Avia, said. “And this is like the biggest place I’ve ever seen with just Israelis, and that’s amazing.”