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Did You Miss the Biggest Jewish Party in the World ?
by Judy Lash Balint
May 7, 2003

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 55th 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.

At the Ohel Nechama synagogue, a few steps away from the President's house and the Jerusalem Theater, the baal tefilla (prayer leader) is a white-haired survivor of the Holocaust. His voice is strong as he belts out the Hallel and leads the congregation in the Shehechiyanu prayer, thanking God for allowing us to reach this special time.

The brief service over, congregants pour out into the street mingling with youngsters on their way into town for the traditional music and dancing on the streets that are closed to traffic.

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.

Meanwhile, back in town there are two main stages set up on King George Street and in Zion Square featuring some of Israel's most popular groups. The plaza in Safra Square is set aside for Israeli dancing.

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 attached 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 Yehuda Elisa and Oshik Levi 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.

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 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 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.

I head out to Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, half an hour south of Jerusalem, for a reunion with my old ulpan buddies. It's 30 years since we sat together in the stifling classroom at Kibbutz Beerot Yitzhak memorizing dialogue as we tried to learn Hebrew.

I haven't seen anyone from those days in more than 20 years, but several of them have kept in touch with each other. Two of the former ulpanistim come out to meet me at the parking lot--it's startling to see middle-aged versions of the kids I remember from those days. Surprisingly, three of the group are still living on kibbutzim. My former ulpan roommate, formerly from Connecticut, married a kibbutzim and they made their lives on Beerot Yitzhak.

Our host, Shoshana, a New York native, also married an Israeli and has never lived anywhere besides the kibbutz. Then there's Avraham, who went from Beerot Yitzhak to Bar Ilan University to Kibbutz Alumim, where he works as a gardener today.

In between the eating, we peer at faded photos of our youthful exploits as new Israelis. We struggle to put names to faces we see in the pictures, and enjoy hearing fragments of stories that someone's heard about one or another of the group. We figure that almost half of the ulpan still lives in Israel.

I manage to stop by at another backyard barbecue in nearby Alon Shvut before heading back to Jerusalem. The city is thronged with people in the early evening. All the parks are still packed with revelers who want to extend this joyful day as long as possible.

In the lovely Yemin Moshe neighborhood just outside the walls of the Old City, a living history program is taking place, with actors dressed in period costume from the War of Independence days. Cafes nearby are jammed, families are strolling and music is everywhere.

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.