APRIL 26, 2018 – Elie Mazor of Peabody can still remember the very first Yom Ha’atzmaut, in 1948. “My father didn’t have a flag, so he built one from a piece of wood, and it was covered in paper, and on the front he put stars and stripes, and hung it from our balcony,” he recalled. “In Jerusalem, there was a military parade, and soldiers marched next to mules who carried all of their equipment.”
The main thing Mazor always associates with Israel’s early celebrations of its independence is the dancing. “As a young boy, I didn’t know how to dance,” he said. “But I was looking to follow this girl I liked, and I heard she was going to folk dancing at the YMCA in Jerusalem, so I went to find her. That’s how I became a folk dancer.” At picnics, which were called “kumzits” (Yiddish for “come and sit”), Mazor remembers even more dancing around large bonfires.
Seventy years later, the Israeli flag lights up a 600-foot tall skyscraper, and mules have been replaced by an air show put on by IDF planes that travel to every city and town in the country. But the spirit of jubilation and community that marked the first celebrations remains in full force.
“The whole country is in celebration,” said Rachel Jacobson, who grew up in Jerusalem. “The parks are filled with different types of celebration. There are a lot of singers, dancing in the street, and tons and tons of food. Everyone comes out of their homes; everyone’s united. It’s a big, big happy holiday.”
Indeed, there is a great deal to celebrate. In the seven decades since its founding, Israel has fought off countless terrorist threats and invasions, and managed to ensure its security by building up one of the most sophisticated militaries in world history. It revived the Hebrew language, and built a national identity that’s a fascinating fusion of Jewish cultures from every corner of the world. Its iconic kibbutzim pioneered innovative agricultural technology used the world over, and today, it remains a global leader in cutting-edge technology and medicine. Despite the challenges they face, its people are ranked as the eleventh happiest in the world.
On Independence Day, Israelis celebrate having a home, in the deepest sense of the word. “I teach the kids at Hebrew school: you have another home,” said Talya Paul, who grew up in Rehovot and teaches Hebrew School at Temple Beth Shalom in Peabody. “It belongs to you. You’re not wandering anymore. If you go to Israel, even if you don’t know anybody, everyone will help you. You’re no stranger being Jewish.”
“For me, Israel is one family,” said Yael Sokolow, who grew up in Haifa. “You feel connected to the people from the moment you arrive and the door of the plane opens and you walk into the airport, and this is home, and these are your people, and it’s this amazing feeling. I can’t even describe it.” Sokolow feels an especially deep connection to a land that her family has inhabited for 10 generations.
As a child growing up in Libya, Mario Mahkluf was afraid to tell anyone he was Jewish. When he came to Israel as a teenager, he finally felt free. “Everyone around me was Jewish, so I no longer needed to be afraid,” said Mahkluf, of Lynn. “After thousands of years, we finally have a home. Israel is the home for the Jew that’s been wandering for thousands of years.”
For all the euphoria surrounding Yom Ha’atzmaut, there is also sadness. Since its founding, Israel has lost 23,320 soldiers, and roughly 3,000 of its citizens have died in terrorist attacks. For that reason, Israel observes Yom Hazikaron, or “Memorial Day,” the day before Yom Ha’atzmaut. In Israel, Yom Hazikaron begins with a siren that can be heard throughout the country. As the siren sounds, the country comes to a standstill. Even on busy highways, cars and buses stop, and everyone gets out and stands for a moment of silence. For the rest of the day, everything is closed, and Israelis attend memorials at cemeteries. Instead of normal programming, Israeli television stations broadcast the names of every soldier who lost their life in service to their country.
For Sokolow, it is fitting to have a day of somber remembrance before one of celebration. “Israel is a gift from the 23,000 who died so we could have a country. They died so we could celebrate and live.”
Israelis are proud of their past and optimistic for their future. “I am positive that Israel is here to stay,” said Jacobson. “If you’re taught any other way, then you won’t survive.”
“I have nothing but a great outlook on Israel, judging by the amount of advancement in the last 70 years,” said Mahkluf. “There’s a lot of issues, but overall the energy is there, the ambition is there, for the next 70 years, and the next millennia.”
“I believe Israel will overcome everything,” said Paul. “That’s in my heart forever.”
On Sunday, in Beverly, the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore will host its second annual Yom Ha’atzmaut concert. Last year, over 300 people went to the Cabot Street Theatre in Beverly to listen to live Israeli music, and this year, the JCC expects a similar turnout at the Larcom Theatre. The concert will feature a wide array of Israeli music, starting with local acts from Epstein Hillel students, and a dance from Temple Sinai congregants. It will also feature Rabbis David Meyer and John Nelson, and the Chai Notes, an a capella group led by Shirat Hayam Cantor Elana Rozenfeld. The main act will be the famous Israeli singer Gitit Shoval, who will sing a mix of Bob Dylan, Carole King, and a variety of modern and traditional Israeli songs. There will also be brief remarks Danielle Harsip, the Boston area director of AIPAC, and an IDF soldier.
“Our event is a truly wonderful opportunity for the North Shore Jewish community to come together and show our love and support for the state of Israel,” said Marty Schneer, Executive Director of the JCCNS. Sara Ewing of the JCCNS, said the organization is grateful to the CJP and generous donors who made this concert possible.
In the Boston area, a festival will be hosted by Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), the Israeli-American Council (IAC) and the Israeli Consulate General. On May 6, roughly 3,000 people will come to scenic Flynn Cruiseport along Boston Harbor to celebrate every aspect of Israeli life. There will be an Israeli food market, Israeli dance performances, an Ethiopian-Israeli dance workshop, and an exhibit on Israeli innovation. Israeli DJs will host an outdoor street party, and childrens’ entertainers Gili Ba Levaker and Hanny Nahmias will sing songs in Hebrew and English. For tickets, go to celebrateisraelboston.com.