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Did You Miss It? Israel's 57th Birthday Bash...
Dancing for joy in Hashmonaim
by Judy Lash Balint
May 12, 2005

If you weren't here in Israel over the past 24 hours, then you missed the biggest Jewish party in the world.

As night falls, bringing relief from the agony of Remembrance Day, Israelis come out to celebrate Israel's 57th birthday in their own way. In Jerusalem, hundreds dressed in blue and white stream into synagogues all over the city for special prayers of thanksgiving.

I arrive at my shul five minutes before the Yom Haatzmaut service is due to start. The place is packed, even the plastic chairs in the courtyard outside the windows are filled to capacity.

Most people are dressed in blue and white and struggle to make the transition from the somber day to the joyful evening. At least half of our congregation are immigrants, many under 35. The Yom Haatzmaut prayers give voice to our wonder at being privileged to be part of the modern state of Israel. Our young chazan is accompanied by one of our middle aged Israeli members who plays a mean accordion, and leads us in Hallel.

After a blast of the shofar we sing, "Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem," followed by a prayer of gratitude for living in the period of the beginning of the redemption. The brief service winds up with the singing of Shir Hama'alot to the tune of Hatikva.

As the congregation pours into the street, it's as if a cork has been released from a bottle--all the pent up feelings from the difficult day of remembrance give way to celebration of our continued existence in this land of ours.

Meanwhile, back in town there are the main streets are closed to traffic and a stage in Zion Square features some of Israel's most popular singers--David Broza was the star. The plaza in Safra Square is set aside for Israeli dancing until the wee hours.

Buildings all over the city are adorned with massive Israeli flags. The roof of the Dan Panorama Hotel on Keren Hayesod Street is aflutter with dozens of smaller flags and strings of white lights. Cars sport Israeli flags from every conceivable opening.

Teenagers roam from one stage to the other squirting anyone within range with white goop from an aerosol can. Foreign news cameras ask kids to pose so they can document the mayhem.

At 10:30 p.m. people start to congregate near the Sheraton Plaza Hotel to watch the main fireworks display. Fifteen minutes after it was scheduled to begin, the sky lights up with an awesome array of pyrotechnics. The noise is deafening, the colors against the black sky are stunning.

Many of the non-teen revelers head down to the Jerusalem Theater after the fireworks. The lobby is packed and impossibly hot as hundreds have packed themselves in to join in a free sing-along of classic Israeli numbers. Starting at 11:30 p.m, there's a dance party there that features samba, salsa and 70s style music.

At around midnight, we get news of a Katyusha attack on the northern community of Shlomi. A bakery gets a direct hit--but it's the one night of the year that workers are not there at that hour. Damage to the building, but no one is hurt.

This morning, I hear the military band start up at the President's House nearby. President Moshe Katzav, one of Israel's most popular presidents, is on the receiving line for foreign dignitaries who come to present their good wishes on the occasion of Yom Haatzmaut. Mid-morning, several air force jets do a stunt fly-by, leaving a trail of blue and white smoke in their wake.

Regular folks have already headed out to the parks and beaches for the traditional "mangal" or barbecue. There are regular radio updates on the gridlock covering certain parts of the country. By mid-day, several national parks are closed because there's just nowhere to squeeze in another vehicle.

More than 70,000 Israelis pack into Gush Katif to take part in dozens of Independence Day celebrations--including dedicating a new synagogue in the Kfar Darom community. Rumor has it that the entire Gush Katif area will be closed to non-residents in the coming week in preparation for the mid-August evictions of 22 Jewish communities there.

Yom Haatzmaut is the one day in the year that feels like a Sunday. Pure recreation with no major religious obligations. No newspapers, banks or mail to take the mind off finding the best place to set up the portable barbecue. I'm actually successful in finding a spot with a few friends that's not inundated, and we picnic in peace and quiet under the shade of a pine tree in the Jerusalem hills, surrounded by the perfume of thyme bushes all around.

On the radio there's a special edition of a program where Israelis around the world call in. Michael from Tokyo calls to wish us chag sameach in Japanese. Yossi from Denver reports that he's going to a Yom Haatzmaut program at the JCC, and Etti checks in from Amsterdam to let us know she's thinking of us.

In the Rehavia neighborhood not far from the center of town, a living history program is taking place, with actors dressed in period costume from British Mandate days, and sand bags lining the elegant streets. The neighborhood was built and settled mostly by German Jews who brought cafe culture to Palestine. Thousands throng the streets to relive those days and enjoy music and food.

In the evening, the prestigious Israel Prize awards ceremony takes place, with 17 prominent Israelis recognized for their contribution to society. Among them are the photographer Alex Levac; the biographer of David Ben Gurion and Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, one of the country's most outstanding orators.

After dark, there's one final round of fireworks, this time set off near the Tower of David--and then it's over. Next year you won't want to miss it.