I Miss Us

Here are my complaints about the annual Israel Independence Day Festival:

The falafel makers use too much breadcrumb filler. There’s never enough shade near the main stage, where the music is always too loud, anyway. The audience never pays attention to the honored speakers, who themselves never say a single memorable thing. 

I’m not done. The festival, which in recent years has been held in Woodley Park in Van Nuys, used to be free.  Then admission was $5; last year it was $8.  Parking was free, though is it really “parking” if you have to walk a half hour to the gate through dust storms kicked up by traffic jams of honking SUVs?

And then there was this: Standing at the Jewish Journal booth, I heard many curious or friendly or appreciative comments. Then, inevitably, an irate reader who had saved up a year’s worth of slights, arguments and gotchas would march up to unload every complaint in an endless verbal assault. Standing at the Journal booth was like being in a rhetorical dunk tank. I never knew when a button I pushed in a column six months ago would send me gasping for air in someone’s bottomless harangue.  

But my single biggest complaint about the 63nd annual Israel Independence Day Festival is this: They canceled it.

That’s right. For the first time in more than 20 years, the Jewish community is not gathering to party for Israel this year. No other event in the year comes close to bringing together the sheer number of L.A. Jews that the Israel Independence Day Festival brought out — in some years, close to 35,000.

According to an article by Julie Gruenbaum Fax in The Journal of April 15, it was funding cuts that forced organizer Yoram Gutman to cancel this year’s festival, which was scheduled for this Sunday, May 15.

Due to budget constraints, the City of Los Angeles decided the festival needed to cover the $43,000 tab for police, fire and traffic services, which the city once picked up. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles opted not to contribute the $20,000 it had in years past. The Israel Leadership Council, a can-do group of major Israeli-born philanthropists, ceased its partnership with Gutman in 2009 over disagreements on the festival’s future direction.

So the festival — with its three stages of music, its kiddie attractions, its rows of falafel, kebab and knish vendors, its 250 booths representing every Jewish organization from Americans for Peace Now to Friends of Likud, its merchants selling everything from Yemenite mezuzot to sexy “Sababa” T-shirts, its random headlining Israeli star, and those skydivers who leap from 12,000 feet and form a Jewish star overhead while thousands of Jewish parents below thank God that’s not one of their kids — won’t be there to complain about.

And, I will miss it. Like that sage Joni Mitchell said, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”  

Inevitably, after the parking and the security pat-down and my shift-taking abuse at the Jewish Journal booth, I would buy a slightly overpriced, bready falafel and stroll around, meeting Jews I would otherwise rarely get to see. For years now — ever since the festival moved from Rancho Park — the attendees haven’t really reflected all of L.A. Jewry. Brentwood, Bel Air, Venice, Silver Lake didn’t really represent. Hillcrest Country Club didn’t exactly have a booth. And because the festival usually coincided with the city-wide mitzvah day, Big Sunday, thousands of Jews were otherwise engaged.

But that still left Orthodox families with multiple strollers; Persian Jews setting up barbecues, perfuming the air with sizzling koubideh; thousands of newer Israeli immigrants hungry for a dose of Hebrew; and Sheriff Lee Baca.

Can anything replace the festival? One morning this week, Rabbi Chaim Cunin e-mailed me to announce that Chabad will hold a Lag b’Omer Unity Parade on May 22 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Pico Boulevard,  between Doheny and Robertson. 

“The event has taken on added significance in light of the recent canceling of the Woodley Park festival,” Cunin wrote, “especially when Jewish unity and pride are more important than ever.”

I’m sure it will be a great success. Cunin, one of 13 children, can get 7,000 people just from his immediate family. And anyone who can convince me to lay tefillin in front of 400 passengers on El Al Flight 5 to Tel Aviv, as Cunin did last month, can certainly pull off any other miracle.

The Unity Parade will suffice this year, but we need more. An Israel Independence Day Festival is a singular opportunity for us to come together as one community. With better organization, better leadership and more funding, a true community-wide event could come back, much bigger and better. We need it. At a time when Israel is facing growing delegitimization, a very public, very festive show of support is more important than ever. It is not an evening event — bring the kids!  It’s not a fundraiser, mission or banquet — affordable to all!  It’s not a parade — stay, shmooze, check out what the community has to offer, in all its mind-bending diversity. And it’s not just Jewish — a great festival can bring people out from across the entire city to show their support.

So, to those with the vision and wherewithal to organize next year’s big event, I make this vow: No complaints.