Here’s to a Normal Yom Ha’atzmaut

April 25, 2009 by

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The worst Yom Ha’atzmaut I ever spent was in New Jersey in May 2007; the best (so far) was in Modi’in in 2008. Let me explain why.

In New Jersey, in the Metrowest JCC, they hold a Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration each year. My family and I would always go. And before I say why I hated it in 2007, I should note for full disclosure that we loved living in New Jersey, we loved the Jewish community, and we still have many friends there. This is not an A. B. Yehoshua tirade.

The main performance at the JCC celebration in 2007 was an Israeli ballroom dancing couple: the woman was able-bodied, but the male dancer was in a wheelchair. They performed a number of classic ballroom dances – a tango, a cha-cha-cha, a waltz – as she wheeled and twisted him around, smiles pasted on both their faces.

Monty Python could not have bettered it. It was beyond parody. I didn’t know where to bury myself.

I am sure that the male dancer is a hero, that he’s gone through terrible pain and suffering, and that his resilience and determination are things for us all to acknowledge and applaud. But as a show, it was simply awful. As a member of the audience, you weren’t really meant to enjoy it: you were meant to clap charitably.

But that’s not really why I hated Yom Ha’atzmaut 2007. The whole affair at the JCC was “hyper-intentional” – that’s the best word I can find to describe it. In order to celebrate you had to “do” stuff. Kids had to go to an arts and crafts activity and make Israeli flags. Adults had to go to an “Israel in the media workshop.” (Anything to escape the wheelchair ballroom dancing). Celebration didn’t happen unless you tried really, really hard to make it happen. And sometimes, when you try too hard, it feels forced.

Fast forward one year. Modi’in, Israel. Huge outdoors concert in the middle of the town’s big park. Popcorn stalls, hot dog stands, ice cream vendors. Silly hats, silly neon light twirly things, silly balloons (thank God for cheap imports from China). Thousands and thousands of people just hanging out, sitting on the ground on a rug, wandering around enjoying the atmosphere, chatting, schmoozing, joking, eating, drinking. The only thing you had to “do” in order to celebrate was walk there.

My one abiding memory of last year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut in Modi’in was how normal it felt.

It was like a 4th of July picnic in the USA. Just hanging out, enjoying, celebrating, relaxing, like regular people. You didn’t need to make anything happen. It just did.

This is not to criticize Jewish life in the Diaspora. This is not to attack the JCC Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations. Perhaps, in another mood, I might want to consider the educational implications of these observations: you know, how to re-conceive of Yom Ha’azmaut in the Diaspora in a more “natural” way, how to create activities that make it more organic to Jewish life, and all that. Perhaps, in another mood, I might want to muse about how these observations are an indicative example of how public civic Judaism is different from private religious Judaism in the Diaspora. Perhaps, in another mood, I might consider the downside of a complacent civic calendar, which might lead to certain national holidays losing their original significance by virtue of their normalcy (Memorial Day sales, anyone?)

But that’s not what I want to do right now. As this year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut comes around, I don’t want to “do” anything. I just want let it happen and soak up the moment. Sometimes, you just need to celebrate. Chag sameach!

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