Whose Independence Are We Celebrating, Anyway?

Israelis in America Find Their Adopted Home’s Take on Independence Day Leaves Them Cold

By Ariella Cohen

Published May 06, 2005, issue of May 06, 2005.
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Israel turns 57 this week, and in Jewish kitchens all across America the cakes are getting iced blue and white to mark the occasion.

But not in the kitchen at Hoomoos Asli, an Israeli restaurant in Lower Manhattan, or in the kitchen at Pianos, an East Village bar that is popular with the neighborhood’s sizable Israeli population. Neither venue plans to break out the barbecues and plastic hammers that are ubiquitous in Israel on Independence Day.

Though it’s the quintessential Israeli holiday, Israeli Independence Day — Yom Ha’atzmaut — appears to hold relatively little interest for Israelis living in America. Despite evidence of a growing Israeli presence in the United States today, Israeli Independence Day is, as celebrated here, predominantly an American affair.

And so while DJ Ori Morag has spent the last few years spinning records at the techno parties popular in New York’s little Tel Aviv, he nevertheless plans to observe the holiday by catching up on his sleep. “I will be at a party the night before, the night after,” Morag said. “I am not saying I am against going to one of the parties, but celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut here isn’t really a big deal for me.”

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles the holiday has spawned an entire amusement park. Organizers of the regional Israeli Independence Day festival expect to attract some 40,000 revelers to the $250,000 carnival, complete with Disneyesque rides and such attractions as sky-diving facilities, carousels, a “club tent” for dance-hungry teenagers and a few stages for performers. Tel Aviv diva Sarit Hadad will fly in to sing on the main stage.

Once an all-Israeli affair, the festival has, with each passing year, grown more and more popular with American Jews. “It used to be all Israelis, but now it’s everyone,” said Yoram Gutman, the festival’s executive director. However, some Israelis say that big parties such as Gutman’s miss the mark.

“Here, the holiday is about American Jews and what they like to do and see in Israel; it’s not really about my life there,” said Ronen Wachman, an Israeli living in Atlanta. “It’s hard to live in Israel. You try to make it look pretty.”

Wachman, a native of the Tel Aviv suburb of Hod Ha-Sharon, does not limit his distaste for American

celebrations to Israeli Independence Day. A diamond merchant with extensive ties to Atlanta’s Jewish community, he never has cared much for the manner in which any of the Jewish holidays are celebrated in his adopted homeland.

“I find their way of observing exclusionary and judgmental. I live in the Jewish neighborhood, but I do not like the way that they make rules and judgments about being Jewish,” Wachman said.

L.A. party-planner Gutman esti-

mates that out of last year’s 40,000 partygoers, about 60% were Israeli and 40% American, a demographic shift that breaks down to an increase in Americans’ participation and a drop in Israelis’. Some attribute the shift to the tense political climate and a romanticized view of Israel on the part of the country’s American defenders.

According to event organizers, at Israeli Independence Day celebrations nationwide the emphasis in recent years also has shifted from education to entertainment. Israeli Independence Day is looking a little less Epcot and a little more Magic Kingdom.

“Building the pseudo-Kotel, putting down sand for the Eilat beach room… all these things took a lot of work for not such a great turnout,” said Brad Young, the planner of this year’s Israeli Independence Day festival at the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey.

When the JFCNJ began celebrating Israel’s independence 15 years ago, the day revolved around blue-and-white cake, smatterings of Israeli trivia, a stuffed camel and a cardboard model of Jerusalem’s Western Wall. This year the festivities include an Israeli pop star El Al’d in especially for the day, Israeli videos and a panoply of catered goodies. With new funding coming from local synagogues, Hebrew schools, the JCC of Central New Jersey and the YM-YWHA, the event’s budget has ballooned.

“It’s costlier now, but the entertainment puts everyone in a festive mood,” Young said. Changing the format from classic, informal Zionist education to one of screens and singers has given the holiday a new sheen, increasing turnout to more than 200 families from 15 or 20.

“The old programs had more pointed remarks about the country itself and its accomplishments but while we haven’t done any formal evaluations, no one seems to miss the educational components,” Young said.

Israeli photographer Shai Kremer, now New York based, is known for crisp shots of his country’s urban landscapes. He has never celebrated Israeli Independence Day in the States.

“For Pesach I cooked for my friends, explained the afikomen, but Yom Ha’atzmaut brings up questions that are not so simple to talk about,” he said.

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