Israel’s 62nd birthday brings crowds to JCC
To many Jews, Israel is a special place of Jewish history and heritage. To 9-year-old Sam Kaplan, though, the best description of Israel might be delicious.
Standing in the Jewish Community Center of Squirrel Hill during the United Jewish Federation-sponsored Yom Haatzmaut celebration, Kaplan surveyed the icing-covered, Israel-shaped cookie he’d just created.
“It tastes great. I’ve got jelly beans, M&Ms and a lot of sprinkles,” said Kaplan. “But it kind of looks like a fish.”
Kaplan’s mother Lori stood by smiling.
“I’m proud he’s so in touch with his Jewish identity that he can eat the state of Israel,” she joked, adding, “But I think they’re just here for the cookies.”
An estimated 1,500 people packed the Jewish Community Center on Thursday, April 20, to celebrate Israel’s 62nd birthday with a carnival-like afternoon of food, music, dancing and petting — animals, that is.
Set up between the Alex & Leona Robinson and the Irene Kaufman buildings was a petting zoo featuring assorted miniature animals, including donkeys, a cow, horse and a baby alpaca, as well as the less exotic puppies and chicks.
Inside, a mélange of food and art vendors and local organization booths kept the gymnasium full of color and motion, feeling distinctly like an imitation shuk.
Israeli artist Miriam Blumenfeld Lamdan’s bright, swirling abstract paintings of Jerusalem were amongst the most striking.
“Movement is life,” she said, pointing to a bright, Impressionistic painting of a flower. “And so this flower is life. We must choose life.”
To make all the pieces fall into place, planning began back in September and didn’t end, said the event chair, Charlene Tissenbaum, “right up until today, which was all hands-on; getting the chairs, hanging the posters, picking up the coffee at Starbucks.”
The celebration was about more than cookies and an alpaca, as Tissenbaum said, “We want people to have a great feeling about Israel. There are many Israel events during the year, but this seems like the one time that everyone comes together to celebrate. Being a part of the Israel celebration here creates a huge connection between the Jews here and there.”
Adding to that connection, of course, were all manners of Israelis.
The Karmiel-Misgav Teen Delegation performed Hebrew songs and choreographed dances for a mostly parent young child crowd early in the evening.
“We wanted to present Israel in a different way. We feel that the media is very biased,” said 16-year-old delegate Guy Canaan. “We are good people. We want to show the real face of Israel.”
One song featured the teenagers twirling in shawls, then ditching them for more modern dance attire; the juxtaposition pointed to Israel’s balance of tradition and progression.
Similarly, Jerusalem artist Moshe Dvash’s work included more classic-looking metal Judaica and edgier jewelry items.
Dvash feared the importance of the holiday may have been lost on much of the crowd, as he said “The Israelis just seem to be here as a nice background.”
An American Yom Haatzmaut celebration is different than an Israeli one, many of the visiting Israelis said. Coming immediately after Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s day of remembering fallen soldiers, Yom Haatzmaut carries a more revered celebratory vibe; “In Israel, you feel it’s a holy day,” said artist Talma Liran. “You see flags all around, all of us dressed in blue and white, people dancing outside. This feels like a regular Saturday night celebration.”
Back at the cookie-making booth, United Jewish Federation’s Shalom Pittsburgh Associate Becca Lehner kept busy, as parents and kids alike created edible Israels. But the crowded table was no surprise.
“Everyone loves cookies,” said Lehner.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)