Israelis celebrate Purim in full costume throughout Israel.
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Nashuva Lag Ba’Omer Bonfire, Thursday, May 10. Photos by David Miller
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.”
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“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” John F. Kennedy wisely put forth in a 1962 speech. As I write this, the Occupy Wall Street movement is in full swing, and I can’t help but be reminded of my summer covering the social and economic protests in Israel.
I arrived in the southern Israeli town of Sderot at the beginning of August to begin working on a documentary following the “Israeli Summer” social movement. I was blown away by the hundreds of thousands of people actively rallying against the economic and political status quo. It seemed as though every town I traveled through had a tent city—the ubiquitous emblem of the cause. These weren’t just Ashkenazim from the wealthy, developed center, but an ethnic, religious, and political chop suey of people from all sorts of backgrounds.
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When I arrived in Israel, I was naively idealistic. It took me less than one week to realize that despite the fervent but peaceful way in which Israeli citizens protested the economic status quo and lack of social equality, the only overarching consensus was that no major social reforms could come to fruition until Israeli citizens died. Not just a few, but enough to shake the government out of its coma, was the expressed sentiment.
I was horrified to repeatedly hear this morbid maxim uttered by Hawks, Doves, and Anarchists alike. Solidarity meant nothing other than the illusion of a unified Israel, when in the minds of many Israelis, they were just as divided as ever—the only unifying theme among the protestors was the belief that violence was the only true avenue for change.
The first time I heard this expressed was as my friend and I were walking down the semi-deserted streets in Be’er Sheva after the August 13th rally—a rally that drew approximately 25,000 people, and ended at midnight with a heartfelt crowd-wide rendition of “Hatikvah.”
I innocently asked my friend if he thought the protests would change anything, and without missing a beat, he said, “Honestly? Nothing will change until someone dies, or a lot of people die. It takes death for the government to act. That’s how it has always been, and I think that this is no different.”
Weren’t these rallies so peaceful because they were supposed to stand out in stark contrast to the violent Arab Spring erupting all around Israel? Was all of this talk of solidarity and community a farce?
No, it wasn’t. But the movement wasn’t coming strictly from a place of unbridled hope and altruism either.
The undercurrent of negativity also became clear when I interviewed young adults at the Sderot tent city, who turned out to be working journalists and media and marketing students.
I was led to a folding chair, and was instantly made the makeshift moderator of a debate between approximately a dozen protestors. It was an unusual first interview, but it allowed me to hear the discussion at large, rather than from one person at a time, and it gave me a greater understanding of the movement.
I was impressed by the restraint everyone showed when they disagreed with each other, and the real surprise was just how much they disagreed about important things. Like what the protest was about. To this day, there is no consensus on exactly what people were rallying together for other than the amorphous “economic and social problem.”
Sounds familiar to Americans now, doesn’t it?
Although hope was ever-apparent in the protest activities in Israel this summer, that sentiment was frequently tinged with the fatalistic notion that peaceful protests could never make enough of an impact to actually change society.
There is a scene in the musical, “Les Miserables,” the morning after a student uprising is extinguished. The women who are left behind sadly sing:
“Nothing changes, nothing ever will…”
I hope that something good does comes out of this movement—the only other alternative, one that resembles the Arab Spring—is much too sinister to imagine.