Eden Bennun craved a taste of Israel. Growing up in Kfar Saba and Rishon LeZion as a child gave her a love of Israel’s smells, sounds and foods.
That’s why she made her way to the Celebrate Israel Festival at Rancho Park along with about 10,000 other Angelenos (down from approximately 15,000 last year on a very busy day in Los Angeles). The April 21 event was hosted by the Israeli American Council (IAC), formerly the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC).
“I wish I could record the smell,” Bennun said, standing next to a food booth occupied by Hummus Bar & Grill, a restaurant in Tarzana.
Thousands of people walking around in Hebrew-lettered T-shirts, shorts and sunglasses, helped create a scene reminiscent of a beautiful day along the Tel Aviv beaches, but it was the aroma of Mediterranean eats that stuck with many.
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From the standard fare of shawarma and falafel to Jerusalem bagels with za’atar (dried herbs mixed with sesame seeds), the festival offered a range of Middle Eastern treats. An area called Café Tel Aviv provided dozens of options, including local kosher favorites Mexikosher, Toast Café and even a stand from Sadaf, the Mediterranean gourmet food company.
The sounds of Celebrate Israel, like the food, brought the Holy Land to Los Angeles for a day. Israeli pop and rock music blared from speakers until Mashina, a popular Israeli rock band that drew many late visitors to the event, took the stage around 6 p.m.
Thousands of people packed in near the main stage, where they listened to the American and Israeli national anthems and speeches by some of the event organizers and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. A sea of miniature Israeli flags emerged in the crowd as Mashina took the stage; the band’s performance was even streamed live over FMIL radio, a worldwide Hebrew-language radio station.
Attendees at Sunday's Celebrate Israel Festival stand for the Israeli national anthem. Photo by Korey Johnson
Due to smaller crowds in the celebration’s initial hours, several thousand early birds were able to enjoy Israel without having to wait in line.
Person after person described how the food and environment reminded them of Israel, whether as their childhood home or as their religious and relaxation destination. Galia Dhari, an Israeli who now lives in Valley Village, said that coming to Rancho Park made her feel a part of her native land — for a day.
“It feels like a little bit of home,” Dhari said. “It makes me miss Israel more, but it gives me a little feeling of home.”
Bringing Israelis “home” — even briefly — and bringing Israel to Americans, was the whole point of the event, according to festival chairman Naty Saidoff. Saidoff and his wife, Debbie, were the presenting sponsors of the event.
“When we see the red, white and blue, and then blue and white, fluttering in the wind, we know this is all what it is about,” Saidoff said in a speech to the audience. “We brought you Israel — art, culture, agriculture, the past and the future.”
Thousands of people stand in preparation for a musical performance from Mashina, a popular Israeli rock band. Photo by Abraham Joseph Pal
Jason Ramin, a native Angeleno, visited Israel for the first time 12 years ago. The sense that he was connected to almost everyone at the festival through that experience was what made it special for him.
“Last week I was at Coachella, and I didn’t feel like I was as connected to every random person in that setting [as] I am today,” Ramin said.
The musical variety and energy at Celebrate Israel didn’t quite match that of Coachella, which hosted 180,000 people over two weekends, but there was no lack of things to do. Kids could enjoy a puppy petting zoo, a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, other rides and even physical training activities with “Israeli Scouts” (Tzofim).
In addition to the remarkable variety of foods, there were picnic tables of adults playing backgammon (shesh besh). Adults and kids could take part in a drum circle in the respite of the shade; it was a sunny 80 degrees in the afternoon. There were dozens of vendors as well.
Timan Khoubian, who was born in Iran and now lives in Los Angeles, came to Celebrate Israel to join L.A.’s Jewish community in celebrating the Jewish state, and also to enjoy some Israeli food himself.
“It’s a part of my identity,” Khoubian said, holding pita filled with chicken shawarma. “It’s a reminder [that] I’m a part of a bigger community.”
Nadav Tzabari, whose permanent home is in Israel, traveled to the festival from San Francisco. For Tzabari, it was an important symbol of unity for thousands of Jews in Los Angeles — Israeli and American — to come together.
“I want the Jewish people outside of Israel actually to feel proud of who they are and of Israel,” Tzabari said. “It’s a safe place for them.”