Why would a thriving, diverse and boisterous Jewish community with a large Israeli population forgo an annual festival that celebrates the birth of Israel? As unlikely as it sounds, this is precisely what happened last year: For the first time in more than 20 years, the Israel Independence Day Festival that had become a signature event for our community got canceled.
As much as people had their usual complaints about the festival — too far, too hot, too loud, too cheesy, too Jewish, not Jewish enough — its absence left a big hole in our community. It was the one occasion each year when you could really experience the wild and quirky diversity of the Jewish world in greater Los Angeles.
So, why was it canceled? The official answer is money. The City of Los Angeles, citing budget constraints, decided that the festival needed to cover the costs for police, fire and traffic services, which the city once picked up. And at the same time, some previous backers opted not to make their usual contributions.
If you ask me, though, I think it was about more than money. The festival was getting tired and predictable. It had lost its spark. These days, if you want thousands of people to show up for your event, you’d better make it worth their shlep. Let’s face it: It’s a lot easier to experience a virtual Facebook community in your pajamas — and join fan pages, share photos and YouTube clips and post clever comments — than it is to brave traffic and the heat to show your support for a cause.
And when people do show up, the cool thing now is not to celebrate but to “occupy.” Protesting is so much more dramatic than is just celebrating.
The point is, reviving a tired festival is no easy task. Anyone taking on the challenge would have to give the event a major upgrade — or at least a fresh twist.
Enter Naty Saidoff and the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC).
At a meeting last fall, the ILC board had a difficult debate about whether it would, or could, undertake the huge challenge of helping to resuscitate the festival. Finally, with Saidoff pledging a major financial commitment, the board decided it would seek partners and get behind the project.
Thus began an adrenaline-filled chain of events and strategic partnerships that have led to our own little community miracle: the revival and reincarnation of the Israel Independence Day Festival, which will be held on Sunday, April 29, at Rancho Park in Cheviot Hills.
The festivities will kick off at 9 a.m. with a march from the park down Pico Boulevard to The Museum of Tolerance, then back to the park. Festival activities run from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. All information, including ticketing, can easily be accessed on the Web site (celebrateisraelfestival.com).
Will this new incarnation of the festival be a hit, and will it create a successful model for future years?
Well, let’s start with the important stuff: parking. According to the organizers, parking will be a lot smoother and easier than at the previous location at Woodley Park in Van Nuys, where I distinctly recall feeling like my ancestors in the Sinai desert as I trekked with my little tribe from the car to the festival grounds.
Beyond the parking, the organizers have taken a whole different approach to the festival experience. Yes, there will be the traditional booths — more than 150 of them, covering the broad spectrum of Jewish life in our community — and there will be plenty of entertainment, headlined by Israeli star Eyal Golan, local star Craig Taubman, television star Monique Benabou (from the show “The Voice”) and, among many others, the klezmex Ellis Island Band from New York (which combines — no joke — klezmer and mariachi).
And yes, there will also be prominent speakers and lots of food venues and plenty of entertainment and rides for the kids.
But beyond all that, here’s what I think is the real innovation this year: themed pavilions.
These pavilions will be little worlds unto themselves that will celebrate different areas of Israeli and Jewish life. You can get specific information on the festival Web site, but just to give you an idea, these are some of the themes that will be explored: the wonders of Israeli technology, the depth and meaning of spirituality, the world of art and sculpture, the mystery of genealogy and, not least, Israeli joie de vivre.
Yes, joie de vivre. The organizers figured that after you celebrate the wonders of Israel, it might be a good idea to celebrate life itself. So, one of the pavilions will be called Café Tel Aviv, which will feature a hummus bar, Israeli DJs and, the organizers promise, a “real Tel Aviv ambiance.”
I asked Saidoff over coffee last week what made him push so hard to help bring back the festival. “We found amazing partners all over the community,” he told me. “We couldn’t have done it otherwise.”
But before we parted, he also added: “With everything that’s happening in Israel right now, and with all the pressure the country is under, how could we not do this?”
Saidoff is right: How could we not do this? How could we not celebrate the continuing miracle of Israel’s existence? And how could we not allow for at least one day a year when we could all connect as a community and see each other in real time and in real life?
The Israel festival is back, and for one day at least, Facebook can wait. On April 29, we should all journey to Rancho Park and occupy celebration.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.