April 17, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Wednesday, April 17, 2002
Independence Day

Dear family and friends,

Last night, as the sun set, Israelis managed the switchover from mourning to joy, from Memorial Day to Independence Day. The songs on the radio gradually eased us from sadness to quiet patriotism to celebration.

Modi'in celebrated with the usual raucous, lavish free pop concert in the town centre. Police cordoned off the area with strictly enforced checkpoints. Thousands of residents flocked to the event. The kids ran wild, spraying each other with foam and silly string. Parents stretched out in the park, somehow enjoying the performances despite the teenage chaos around them. Little children paraded around with balloons and lightsticks, begging their parents for overpriced snacks and blue and white marshmallows. All in all a typical Modi'in Independence Day celebration.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that the radio announced that the sound of explosions over Jerusalem this evening will just be fireworks. I confess to flinching slightly at the sound of the first fireworks over Modi'in. We were enjoying dinner, watching the official festivities in Jerusalem on television, when we heard the first loud bangs and saw the flashes over the valley. Excited, we and our neighbours rushed outdoors, from where we have a great view of the fireworks in a park down the street. Who needs to face the crowds in the centre of town when we can pretty much see and hear it all from home?

It was 3 am by the time we returned from a kumzitz - a fireside singalong - in a park at the edge of the neighbouring town of Makkabim. The day's fierce heatwave had broken, leaving a pleasantly mild evening with a light breeze. Several hundred people packed into the makeshift Bedouin-style tent for an evening of song and storytelling. The hours passed so quickly, song after song, memory after memory.

Israeli songwriter Dan Almagor regaled us with tales from his youth, the stories behind some of his most popular songs and anecdotes from his days in the army entertainment troupes. He recalled how as a twelve-year-old boy he eagerly followed the events leading to Israel's 1948 declaration of independence. In those days Israel had no airforce, no antiaircraft batteries, nothing to stop enemy aircraft from bombing his native town of Rehovot south of Tel Aviv. Egyptian aircraft leisurely circled the small town from low altitudes, wreaking death and destruction on the Israeli heartland. There wasn't much to do but sound the air raid sirens and head for the shelters.

Through 54 years of Israeli folk songs we remembered our history, how the State of Israel was born, how we struggled to survive. It was both frightening and comforting to realise how many times before we've faced such wars of survival, each different in character, but representing the same threat to our existence.

Rather than dwell on what others have done to us, our songs focus on how we can change things, how we can do our bit to make our world better - tikkun olam. We do not sing about martyrs and the glory of death, but of a determined resolve to be strong and of good courage to face any challenge.

We have an amazing repertoire of songs of fortitude, songs of national unity and a stubborn will to survive. Time and again, the last verse expresses future hopes for peace. Maybe we're naive, or we just have strong faith, but we've now been writing and singing such songs for over fifty years, however remote peace has seemed. As the national anthem goes, "We have not yet lost hope."

Perhaps that is part of what draws me to these old songs. The slang may change, but fundamentally they are still just as relevant today as they were in the 40s, 50s and 60s.

Somehow we managed to get up this morning ready to do the Israeli Independence Day thing - a barbecue in the park, Israel's national pastime.

A friend celebrating his birthday today made a barbecue party at a nearby recreation area, arriving early to stake out a nice shady spot near the forest's edge before the crowds arrived.

Police had cordoned off the park, inspecting each vehicle. Soldiers in combat gear patrolled the area, wandering between the barbecues and picnics, doing their best to refuse the huge amounts of food offered to them by grateful civilians.

Imagine happy, festive families, the kids playing hide and seek, dads busy at the grill, mums minding the babies, young couples dancing to mideast-style Israeli music blaring from boomboxes - and in the middle of all this heavily armed soldiers carefully inspecting the bushes and keeping a wary eye out for terrorists.

The clearings between the trees were covered in yellow wild mustard, the white umbrellas of wild carrot flowers and red poppies. The purple thistles by the roadside are already growing tall, and we picked our way through them with care on our way to the picnic site.

Throughout the morning huge flocks of migrating spring birds kept passing overhead: storks, swifts and assorted birds of prey. Later on Israel Air Force flypasts took their place - helicopters, transports and fighters in tight formations of three or four aircraft. I could hardly tear my eyes away from the sky. I'm fascinated by anything that flies, bird or machine. A shame I forgot my binoculars.

At around one o'clock we left to go on to another barbecue at a neighbour's home in Modi'in. By then the traffic at the entrance to the park was backed up for a couple of kilometres, about halfway to Modi'in. Latecomers wanted to barbecue too. Good thing we got there early.

Back in Modi'in things were quieter and less crowded, with plenty of garden barbecue parties in progress. Our neighbour had decked out her balcony in blue and white balloons, table cloths and plastic cutlery, with little Israeli flag table arrangements completing the patriotic theme. Half the guests, like us, were wearing the national colours too. Charcoal smoke and song wafted up from a nearby garden. We spent a relaxing afternoon together on the porch, roasting blue and white marshmallows over the grill and enjoying the pleasantly warm spring weather.

Back home this evening we were startled by loud bangs. Someone even sent a note to the Modi'in e-mail list asking if there was shooting. Not to worry, it was only the neighbouring town of Re'ut getting in a last minute firework display, and very beautiful it was too, just visible from my balcony.

All in all a very pleasant and traditional Yom Ha'atzmaut, save for the added security. Who would have thought it possible in the circumstances?

May we know many more calm, pleasant days.


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.