Israel Festival brings L.A. a taste of Tel Aviv

Eden Bennun craved a taste of Israel. Growing up in Kfar Saba and Rishon LeZion as a child gave her a love of Israel’s smells, sounds and foods.

That’s why she made her way to the Celebrate Israel Festival at Rancho Park along with about 10,000 other Angelenos (down from approximately 15,000 last year on a very busy day in Los Angeles). The April 21 event was hosted by the Israeli American Council (IAC), formerly the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC).

“I wish I could record the smell,” Bennun said, standing next to a food booth occupied by Hummus Bar & Grill, a restaurant in Tarzana.

Thousands of people walking around in Hebrew-lettered T-shirts, shorts and sunglasses, helped create a scene reminiscent of a beautiful day along the Tel Aviv beaches, but it was the aroma of Mediterranean eats that stuck with many.

[SLIDESHOW: Celebrate Israel Festival’s 'Top Jews of L.A.']

From the standard fare of shawarma and falafel to Jerusalem bagels with za’atar (dried herbs mixed with sesame seeds), the festival offered a range of Middle Eastern treats. An area called Café Tel Aviv provided dozens of options, including local kosher favorites Mexikosher, Toast Café and even a stand from Sadaf, the Mediterranean gourmet food company.

The sounds of Celebrate Israel, like the food, brought the Holy Land to Los Angeles for a day. Israeli pop and rock music blared from speakers until Mashina, a popular Israeli rock band that drew many late visitors to the event, took the stage around 6 p.m.

Thousands of people packed in near the main stage, where they listened to the American and Israeli national anthems and speeches by some of the event organizers and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. A sea of miniature Israeli flags emerged in the crowd as Mashina took the stage; the band’s performance was even streamed live over FMIL radio, a worldwide Hebrew-language radio station.


Attendees at Sunday's Celebrate Israel Festival stand for the Israeli national anthem. Photo by Korey Johnson

Due to smaller crowds in the celebration’s initial hours, several thousand early birds were able to enjoy Israel without having to wait in line.

Person after person described how the food and environment reminded them of Israel, whether as their childhood home or as their religious and relaxation destination. Galia Dhari, an Israeli who now lives in Valley Village, said that coming to Rancho Park made her feel a part of her native land — for a day.

“It feels like a little bit of home,” Dhari said. “It makes me miss Israel more, but it gives me a little feeling of home.”

Bringing Israelis “home” — even briefly — and bringing Israel to Americans, was the whole point of the event, according to festival chairman Naty Saidoff. Saidoff and his wife, Debbie, were the presenting sponsors of the event.

“When we see the red, white and blue, and then blue and white, fluttering in the wind, we know this is all what it is about,” Saidoff said in a speech to the audience. “We brought you Israel — art, culture, agriculture, the past and the future.”



Thousands of people stand in preparation for a musical performance from Mashina, a popular Israeli rock band. Photo by Abraham Joseph Pal

Jason Ramin, a native Angeleno, visited Israel for the first time 12 years ago. The sense that he was connected to almost everyone at the festival through that experience was what made it special for him.

“Last week I was at Coachella, and I didn’t feel like I was as connected to every random person in that setting [as] I am today,” Ramin said.

The musical variety and energy at Celebrate Israel didn’t quite match that of Coachella, which hosted 180,000 people over two weekends, but there was no lack of things to do. Kids could enjoy a puppy petting zoo, a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, other rides and even physical training activities with “Israeli Scouts” (Tzofim).

In addition to the remarkable variety of foods, there were picnic tables of adults playing backgammon (shesh besh). Adults and kids could take part in a drum circle in the respite of the shade; it was a sunny 80 degrees in the afternoon. There were dozens of vendors as well.

Timan Khoubian, who was born in Iran and now lives in Los Angeles, came to Celebrate Israel to join L.A.’s Jewish community in celebrating the Jewish state, and also to enjoy some Israeli food himself.

“It’s a part of my identity,” Khoubian said, holding pita filled with chicken shawarma. “It’s a reminder [that] I’m a part of a bigger community.”

Nadav Tzabari, whose permanent home is in Israel, traveled to the festival from San Francisco. For Tzabari, it was an important symbol of unity for thousands of Jews in Los Angeles — Israeli and American — to come together.

“I want the Jewish people outside of Israel actually to feel proud of who they are and of Israel,” Tzabari said. “It’s a safe place for them.”

Mellow Israel Fest Draws 42,000

Maybe it was the relatively cool weather on Sunday. Or maybe it was the stepped-up participation of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. But more people than ever attended this year’s Israel Independence Day Festival at Woodley Park in Van Nuys. Organizers put the crowd estimate at about 42,000, a couple of thousand more than last year.

It also helped that organizers did outreach to the Russian community. And that they inked Mashina, a band of aging but still rockin’ Israeli heartthrobs, which headlined a full day of music. As usual, there were activities for children, a long line of kosher food concessions and booths representing dozens of Jewish and Israeli organizations.

Last year’s event was notable for its orange-tinted crowd — the color symbolized solidarity with Gaza’s Jewish settlers, who faced a pending eviction by the Israeli government (see story on page 11). This year, post-eviction, the political posturing was more diffuse and not especially apparent.

“The outstanding thing was that everything went very smooth — no problems,” said Yoram Gutman, the festival’s executive director.

A Deux Ex ‘Mashina’ You Wouldn’t Believe

The Rolling Stones have done it. Cher has done it.

The comeback — that big farewell concert tour followed by a reunion and a new album — is about as American as apple pie.

It’s not unheard of in Israel, either. While solo artists like Arik Einstein, Shlomo Artzi, Shalom Hanoch and Rita have all had their ups and downs, they remain superstar commodities and churn out a new album or collection every few years. Israeli bands, on the other hand, hold their “very-very-last” concert and then reunite years later, probably less because their fans are clamoring for it than because it makes economic sense (those who were once young teenagers now have disposable income).

But who ever thought Mashina would reunite?

That seminal ’80s pop-rock band — their run was actually from 1985-1995 — stood the test of time, putting out eight albums in 10 years and performing hundreds of packed shows.

Mashina had light lyrics about love and relationships and pajamas and zebras — as opposed to war and politics and death — and a synthesized beat to rival the best of the ’80s bands, like, say, Erasure or Hall & Oates (who are, in fact, back on tour for their own comeback.)

Mashina injected new sounds and new life into the Israeli music scene. Founded in 1985 by Shlomi Bracha and Yuval Banay — the son of famous actor Yossi Banay and cousin to many other Banay singers like Meir and Evyatar — it took 10 years and a couple of bombs but mainly hits for the band to run its course. When they were done, though, it seemed like they were done — forever.

But never say never. Especially in showbiz.

Mashina reunited in 2003, coming out with a new album, “Future Romanticism,” and playing, once again, to packed houses in Israel and America. They are headlining the Israel Festival in Los Angeles on Sunday, May 7.

“In the past few years we’ve been concentrating on Mizrahi music,” said Guy Kochlani, director of entertainment for the Israel Festival, referring to Middle Eastern-influenced music. “We wanted to give a new twist and also have an actual band.”

In the past, the festival has brought in solo artists such as Yehoram Ga’on and Sarit Hadad. “Mashina is a fairly old band — they’ll attract 15-45-year-olds, because back in the’80s they used to rock out Israel; they have a huge fan base that will definitely come support Mashina,” Kochlani said.

Mashina band member Banay has been rather shocked by the number of young people who attend their concerts, both here and in America. “It’s amazing how many young people come to see us,” he told The Journal by phone from Israel. “Sometimes we play at clubs, and it’s only teenagers; apparently our songs were passed down from fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers — there are people who are there who were never even born [when Mashina first came out]. But the people who come see the Rolling Stones were not exactly born either [when the Rolling Stones came out].”

Their decision to reunite wasn’t one of those things where a band reunites for one concert and then fades away into the background again.

“We were together for many years — we got tired, and everyone went their own way,” Banay said. But “we were always friends helping each other,” he said, not exactly answering why they decided to reunite. “We are good together, and we enjoy playing together,” he said, as if that were answer enough.

Was it difficult to come back a decade later to an entirely different music scene — one with hip-hop bands like Subliminal and Dag Nachash and ethnic groups like Tipex and Idan Reichl?

“There is rap and hip hop — the Israeli music scene has changed the same way that it changed in Europe and United States. There was rock ‘n’ roll and then dance and then hip-hop, but one thing is for sure, like Neil Young said, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll can never die.'”

Even though Mashina has toured the States since it reunited, coming to Los Angeles, Boston, Florida and New York, Banay says they don’t plan to record in English, like other Israeli artists such as David Broza and Ahinoam Nini (known here as Noa).

“We’re too old for that,” Banay says wistfully. “Sometimes it pains us that we’re not a rock band in America — but you can’t have it all. We are a bit less rich than we could be in America,” he says, noting that there’s only about 100,000 people who buy rock music in Israel. On the other hand, he says, “America is a hard place — you have to work all the time to chase money. It’s true you live there and you live well, but you always miss Israel,” he said, and referred to Mashina’s most popular new song, the trance-like “There’s No Other place”:

“It’s true that the days
Are so short
And the songs that I love
Are no longer played
But there’s no place else.
Nothing else.”