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Celebration, Reflection, Commemoration Converge
Jerusalem Street on Yom Haatzmaut
by Judy Lash Balint
May 5, 2006

Towards the close of Memorial Day for Israel's Fallen--soldiers as well as terror victims-- the heavy mood slowly begins to lift as Israelis emerge from the somber day to celebrate Israel's 58th birthday.

As night falls, bringing relief from the pain of remembrance, hundreds of Jerusalemites dressed in blue and white stream into synagogues all over the city for special prayers of thanksgiving.

At my shul where at least half of the 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 almost drowned out by the full-throated, uplifted voices of the congregation joining together to sing out the meaningful words of the short service. The usual velvet covering for the bimah is replaced for this one night with a clean Israeli flag.

At the close of the prayers we sing out, "Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem," followed by a prayer of gratitude for living in the period of the beginning of the redemption and a joyful rendition of the Shir Hama'alot psalm sung to the tune of Hatikva.

As the congregation pours out 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.

Just an hour after dark, stages are activated in neighborhoods all over the city featuring a variety of music and entertainment. Streets downtown are closed off for the night, and are taken over by the pre-teens whose idea of fun is spraying every passer-by and shopfront with white sticky spray.

Two main stages set up on King George Street and in Zion Square feature some of Israel's most popular groups. The plaza in Safra Square, home of the municipality, is set aside for Israeli dancing.

Meantime, the official Independence Day opening ceremonies are getting underway at Mt Herzl. It's the closest we get to a military parade. Dozens of representatives of Israel's armed forces take part in a meticulously choreographed march-by set to patriotic music. The formality of the ceremony is very un-Israeli.

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 flags flapping from every conceivable opening.

People start to congregate near the Sheraton Plaza Hotel in anticipation of the main fireworks display. In two 15 minute sessions, 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.

As I fall into bed around 1 a.m, I can hear the city thumping with music.

The following morning it's the strains of the military band at the nearby President's House that wake me up. A military band belting out patriotic Israeli numbers, not American marching songs... President Moshe Katzav, one of Israel's most popular presidents, is on the receiving line all morning for dignitaries who come to present their good wishes. 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.

It's 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 the all-important task of finding the best place to set up the portable barbecue.

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.

Thousands turn out for the Living Museum pageant that turns the city's Russian Compund into a backdrop for street theater and music recreating the fascinating history of the area that includes Russian, Ottoman and British Mandatory architecture. The Police Department opens up its Russian Compound prison to all, with displays of a dizzying array of police equipment and personnel. The beautiful Sergei Courtyard is packed with visitors who enjoy the inner city greenery as well as vignettes in period costume of Prince Sergei and his courtesans. One of the most popular spots is the Museum of the Underground Prisoners where Jewish political prisoners were incarcerated and executed by the British occupiers in the years leading up to the declaration of the state.

Toward the end of the day a group of us gather at the Jewish Quarter home of friends in the Old City. There, in an unintentional reversal of our Yom Haatzmaut celebrations in Seattle, where we would consume large quantities of Israeli food like humous and felafel, pita and Israeli salad--we feasted on good old grilled salmon, potato salad and chocolate cake. While the food may have been distinctly un-Israeli, our diverse crowd that included olim from the US and the UK, kids raised in Jerusalem and a visitor from Bellingham, WA, basked in our glorious and very Israeli surroundings.

As we raised a glass of Israeli wine to toast the 58th birthday of our feisty little country we all agreed that there was nowhere we'd rather be on this particular evening than sitting at a table on a rooftop of a Jewish home in Jerusalem's Old City, looking out over the most precious Jewish view in the world.