Pittsburgh and its Jewish community truly showed their colors at last week’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration. Radiant bursts of optimism pierced a day whose ugliness featured tenebrous skies, howling winds and scattered showers.
“It’s a testament to how much Pittsburghers care about Israel, them coming out in this bad weather,” said Kim Saltzman, director of overseas operations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Despite the conditions, the Israel Independence Day event, which was held on Community Day School’s campus, welcomed more than 250 people for an afternoon of food, fun and music.
As children and families enjoyed activities, such as crafts, trivia and Israeli dancing, several attendees complimented the offerings.
“It’s a multigenerational event,” noted Shiri Friedman of Squirrel Hill.
“This is the first event I can remember with four legitimate kosher food options. It’s a testament to the diversity of our community and the growth,” remarked Macy Kisilinsky, as he made his way through the crowd.
Couple the various choices for chow with the booth that was providing giant Israeli chocolate bars, and there was plenty to stimulate the senses. Further enlightening the faculties was the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which hosted the event, as just steps from the smell of laffa, fries and pizza was Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s director of marketing, wearing a giant falafel costume.
“I’m a juggling falafel man,” he told onlookers.
And while Salzman and her colleagues ensured that palates and palms would be preoccupied with plenty, the sensory highlight was a live acoustic performance from Matisyahu, a Jewish American musician who catapulted to fame more than a decade ago as a Chassidic beat-boxing, reggae singer.
“Matisyahu is an awesome draw,” said Jamie Schachter, a student at the University of Pittsburgh.
“He’s a national act,” added Friedman.
Prior to headlining the communitywide celebration, Matisyahu had performed at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., and Rototom Sunsplash in Benicassim, Spain.
“He is a great supporter of Israel, and we’re thrilled to bring him to Pittsburgh, despite the windy weather,” said Salzman.
As the artist’s show unfolded, listeners rocked along. Packed in close to the small stage situated above the field, gatherers gyrated to the rhythmic beats. For some, the gesticulation may have been in concert with the smooth hypnotizing sounds emanating from the musician. For others, swaying may have just been means of keeping warm.
“He actually sounds good,” said Greg Engel of Squirrel Hill.
Deanna Skavio agreed, adding that she hoped to hear Matisyahu’s song “King Without A Crown.”
“I love the show,” remarked Aaron Ziff midway through the set.
After nearly 90 minutes in conditions that (in the midst of one song) required the guitarists to shield equipment from the rain, the show concluded. After descending from the stage, signing CDs and posing for a few photos with fans from myriad walks of life, Matisyahu departed from the schoolyard with little fanfare.
The performance was tremendous, noted Ziff, who moved to Pittsburgh almost a year ago. “Matisyahu is the perfect choice to bring all of the diverse elements of our community together.”
“This is my first Yom Ha’atzmaut in Pittsburgh, and it is so heartening to see so many streams of the community come together for eating, playing and dancing,” said Rabbi Amy Bardack, director of Jewish life and learning at the Federation.
“You don’t realize how big the Pittsburgh community is until you come to an event like this and you see people from so many different branches,” added Rebecca Pollack, also of Squirrel Hill.
The entire event was “powerful,” said Yitzy Nadoff, a Squirrel Hill native and former member of the Israel Defense Forces.
“This is why I served.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.