Brutal heat was the dominant feature of the May 2 Israel Independence Day Festival in Van Nuys, as 99-degree temperatures kept thousands indoors and away from the sprawling Woodley Park celebration.
"I think it was the heat," said festival organizer Jerome Goodman, who added that Israel being more secure this spring — compared to last spring’s suicide bombings — also may have kept attendance low. "[Last year], everybody felt we need to do something to identify, to show support."
Goodman estimated the Sunday crowd was at least 22,000, compared to 45,000 Israel supporters at the 2003 festival.
"It didn’t feel as busy as it usually does," said Jewish giftmaker Rama Beerfas, a vendor from San Diego. "I think the heat kept people away. This is my fifth or sixth year. This was OK. The [festival] staffers told me they made the aisles wider this year. It still doesn’t feel as crowded."
In the late afternoon, the festival’s popular Miss L.A. Israel Pageant was slowed down when one of its young contestants fell ill backstage. It quickly became a Fellini-esque mélange of police, gawking kids, Israeli boyfriends, bikini-clad contestants and Orthodox Hatzolah paramedics.
"It was a little heat exhaustion," said Goodman of the woman driven away in a Hatzolah golf cart and given water.
A popular vendor booth was run by Chabad of California, which promoted its Jewish-questions Web site, www.askmoses.com, on thousands of free bottles of cool water.
"We have 30,000 bottles of water," said Chabad’s Rabbi Simcha Beckman, as pair of yeshiva students unloaded more water. "In Torah, water is knowledge. I don’t think people are thinking as much as, ‘I’m very hot.’ So I give them water."
Appearing on the festival’s main stage were Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Sheriff Lee Baca, who wore a large cowboy hat. The sheriff’s Golden Stars Skydiving Team entertained the crowd by landing near the stage with American and Israeli flag parachutes.
Radio talk show personality and festival host Larry Elder attracted a continuing line of fans at the KABC-AM booth, where he signed books while sitting next to his mother. Elsewhere, numerous festivalgoers brought their dogs — large and small — and Israeli immigrants danced and sang. The day’s uncompromising heat did not dampen support for the 56-year-old Jewish state.
"As long as you’re Jewish, you have a connection to Israel," said Long Beach resident Hila Yerushalmi, one of the festival’s many Persian celebrants. "Even if you’ve never been there, you know it’s your homeland."