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When I was 7 years old, I learned that Israelis go to the beach to celebrate Yom ha'Atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day. What I didn't learn was that this creates a gigantic traffic jam in Jerusalem's Central Bus Station. (That new train line connecting Tel Aviv and central Jerusalem can't come soon enough!)

Bus station 1.jpgUpon arriving in Tel Aviv, we found celebration everywhere, including an endless sea of Israeli flags. We also found the second-worst traffic jam I've ever seen in Tel Aviv (second only to the torrential rain and flooding of January 2013), so we walked the last mile to the beach, which was also packed to capacity. 

Beach 1.JPGThe beachgoers were watching an extended airshow put on by the Israeli Air Force, including a precision exhibition team from the flight school and 23 separate flyovers spanning almost 3 hours. I've always been conflicted about this type of show because I LOVE airplanes, but I maintain a general distaste for militaristic nationalism. I understand that Yom ha'Atzmaut is a holiday celebrating Israel's birthday, and that defense is an important part of Israel society, but (in both America and Israel) I think it sends the wrong message when you center a key aspect of the celebration around the strength of the military. (I'll note that in my role as an observer, I hesitated to share this particular viewpoint until I heard it from the mouth of an Israeli.)

Flyover 1.jpgFlyover 2.jpgWe stopped for lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant, with a view of Rothschild Blvd. As all of the celebrants walked, biked, and drove by, we enjoyed a meal of my 3rd-favorite Israeli food, schnitzel. They even served it with a little Israeli flag! 

Schnitzel 1.jpgThe grassy island in the center of Rothschild featured an interactive independence-themed exhibit to which children could contribute. This panel illustrated Israel's Declaration of Independence. 

Rothschild 1.jpgWe returned to the beach for some (rather chilly) swimming time, on a beach full of sunbathing Israelis. We then headed to the other end of Rothschild to explore Tel Aviv's newly-opened Independence Trail, a path connecting several of Tel Aviv's historical monuments. It began with the first kiosk (sidewalk café) built in Tel Aviv, currently home to EspressoBar.

Independence Trail 1.jpgEach stop features an explanatory sign, and a plaque on the sidewalk with a stylized image of the landmark. (Perhaps marking the ideal location for a photograph?) We took sample pictures at each of the 10 locations, both selfies and regular portraits - perhaps I'll post the full set later on!

Independence trail 2.jpgThe selection of sites was a little confusing. Some sites totally made sense, like the Great Synagogue, the former Haganah headquarters, and Tel Aviv's first kiosk. Others, like the office building built on the site of the former Hertzliyah Gymnasium, or the Taglit-Birthright Israel Innovation Center (listed on the map under "other sites"), felt like a stretch. 

Independence trail 3.jpgThe Independence Trail ended at Independence Hall, the site of Israel's Declaration of Independence ceremony in 1948. From an historical perspective, it felt really special to stand in front of that same building exactly 70 years later, and it makes me wonder what Israel's founders would say about the current state of Israel. The City of Tel Aviv printed a booklet with the original 1948 newspaper stories about independence, which was cool to (try to) read in front of Independence Hall.

Independence hall 1a.jpgLater, as the sun set over the Mediterranean, Tel Aviv began a series of video projections on buildings throughout the city. Some were simply pretty, some were playful and whimsical, and others were historical, like this projection turning the building into a radio/television playing news of the United Nations vote on Israel's statehood, complete with a running ticker at the top of how each country voted. Later in the program, the music swells under a techno-style remix of the word "yes" from the vote.

Another projection, on Independence Hall, featured several modern Israeli citizens sharing their feelings about independence. It was less flashy than the others, but the only one I saw that featured modern Israelis. To me, it was the projection best aligned with the point of the holiday - not just celebrating a 70-year-old victory, but thinking critically about how to carry Israel forward for the next 70 years.

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Like Yom haZikaron, Yom ha'Atzmaut (Israel's Independence Day) begins at sundown. In fact, as Israelis are always eager to explain, the transition between the two is intentional, signaling the connection between what they describe as military sacrifice and military victory. My experience on Yom ha'Atzmaut felt complicated, but I couldn't put my finger on what was bothering me until I talked to an Israeli who was originally from Germany. She said that she supported the celebration of independence, but that such blatant displays of nationalism felt uncomfortable for her. I agreed with her perspective, and added that the corresponding militarism also gives me pause.

Old City 4.jpgWe began the evening at a non-nationalistic, non-militaristic ceremony commemorating the transition from Yom haZikaron. Put on by the Ein Prat Midrasha, a pluralistic beit midrash for young adults, it had previously featured some songs of mourning and remembrance, and a learning session about the holiday. Then, they brought up three graduates of their education program, each with a grandmother in tow. In turn, each grandmother talked about her original vision for Israel's future, at the time of its independence. Then, each grandchild discussed their own dreams for the next 70 years. It was incredibly moving, primarily because the pairs were really cute together, but also because Israel's story has become generational. A 70-year-old country is very different from a 30-year-old country, and it has the opportunity to address issues that may have been unrealistic or unattainable in earlier eras.

The ceremony continued with songs, prayers, and poems, including one featured song written by a 7-year-old. In addition to being super-catchy, the song also raised interesting questions about Israel's past growth and future development. After a while, we moved on to the Western Wall, where a gigantic crowd of religious men were conducting a service honoring Israel's independence.

Western Wall 1a.jpgThe service itself was lively, and I was amused to see nearly as many bystanders recording the service on their smartphones as participants. There was a lot of enthusiastic singing, jumping, and celebrating on the men's side, though the women's side was much more subdued. Occasionally, the two sides would sing a song together.

City Center 1.jpgIn the City Center, near Ben Yehuda Street, televisions were showing the official government ceremony, while people stood around waiting for the party to start. (We passed by several empty dance floors with loud music and disco lights.) Meanwhile, several street musicians were staging their own small celebrations, in a wide variety of styles.

City Center 2.jpgAs the sun set, the dancing throughout the city center continued at the large main stage, several smaller stages, and around random speakers playing all types of music.

City Center 3.jpgThis particular stage was put on by BBYO's March of the Living organizers, and the musical style seemed geared toward teens, though adults of every age were actively dancing. This stage was on Jaffa Street, and the dance floor covered the entire street, including the Light Rail tracks. Everyone assumed that the Light Rail had been shut down for the evening, until the bell rang and the train drove straight through the crowd. I don't know if the dancers or the train passengers were more confused, but the dancing didn't stop just because of a train.

As we walked through the city, many of the building were illuminated with video projections in a city-wide art installation. This building had pretty-colored geometric patterns, but several others had topical art featuring political messages or imagery of Israel's founders. 

City Center 5.jpgThe concert in Safra Square had a much different tone. The singers there were largely singing traditional Israeli folk songs, and old-fashioned rock favorites. (At one point, they even led the crowd in traditional Israeli dancing.) The audience here was older than in the City Center, but no less enthusiastic, especially during the songs with a good beat.

Back on Jaffa Street, the crowd was packed tightly through the entire City Center area. The stage at the end of Ben Yehuda Street now had a live funk band, and the plaza had become an enthusiastic dance floor. Even religious Israelis were getting in on the fun - one was singing through a loudspeaker on top of a van, and a very mixed group was dancing on the street in front of him.

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City Center 7.jpgAs we headed back after a long night, after seeing the full breadth of Jerusalem's Yom ha'Atzmaut celebration, we prepared to travel to Jerusalem in the morning for another side of the holiday.

Israel's observance of Yom haZikaron continued yesterday during the day, in events and ceremonies throughout the country. Many schools held assemblies to commemorate the day, geared toward the age levels of the students, like this school in Jerusalem.

School 1.jpgThis school's ceremony, like many, were timed to coincide with the second air raid siren, at 11 am. Like the night before, most Israelis stopped their activities and stood at attention to honor those who died. This time, I was next to Jerusalem's Light Rail tracks, and I watched the train driver throw on the emergency brake and stand up inside his cab. On a street crowded with people bustling to get to Mount Herzl just seconds earlier, it was eerie and surprising to see everyone suddenly stand still.

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Next, we headed to Mount Herzl, Israel's national/military cemetery. When we arrived, a ceremony was underway that included speeches from various dignitaries, as well as a recitation of the Mourner's Kaddish, the prayer in memory of those who have died. Growing up at Jewish summer camp, I learned that this prayer is special to Israelis because they only recite it at funerals. (Americans regularly include it in services throughout the year.) It was a special experience to see the Israelis at Mount Herzl recite it together.

Har Herzl 1.jpgMany Israelis visit their family members' graves on Yom haZikaron, and Mount Herzl was packed. We spoke with an American who made Aliyah (became a citizen) after joining the Israeli army, and she told us that the army makes sure that every grave has a visitor on Yom haZikaron. (Look out for a separate post later on with more of her story!)

Har Herzl 2.jpgThroughout the day, officials read the names of soldiers who had died. The crowd here was large, but still only a fraction of Har Herzl's visitors for the day. This ceremony made me think about our own Memorial Day in the United States, which I personally observe as a tribute to soldiers who have died, but which too many people know only as a day for barbeques and department store sales. The tone here in Israel is markedly different, and I think it better suits the meaning of the day. 

Many of the graves at Mount Herzl were decorated with personal touches from friends and family members. I thought it was nice that the cemetery allows that sort of freedom, because in addition to helping the families mourn their loss, it also allows random visitors (like me) to get a sense of who these people were in life. One grave had a bottle of orange Fanta on it, which seemed tremendously out of place, and probably made the family extremely happy.

Har Herzl 4.jpgAfter a short break from the scorching heat, we attended a ceremony at the Tower of David, just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. The ceremony was run by a secular Midrasha learning program for young adults, and it began with a really cool activity asking attendees to record their own perspectives on Israel's 70th birthday. The organizers also put up posters of various luminaries and politicians from throughout Israel's history.

Old City 1.jpgAs the crowd gathered, the ceremony began with some beautiful songs in front of the sunset, intended to bridge the gap between the somber tone of Yom haZikaron and the celebratory nature of Yom ha'Atzmaut. The attendees were mostly secular young adults, who have been participating in holiday services with this organization.

The ceremony continued with a learning session led by one of the community's leaders. The attendees were perfectly attentive, and seemed to be moved by his speech. This event was especially cool because, unlike in the United States, Israel doesn't have many opportunities for the non-Orthodox  to get involved in religious observance. A few new programs have kicked off recently, and I'm excited to learn more when I explore the observance of Shabbat.

Old City 3.jpgCheck back later to hear about the second half of the ceremony, which focused on the Yom ha'Atzmaut theme of "dreams for Israel at 70"!

Like all holidays here in Israel, their memorial day starts at sundown on the previous night. Yom haZikaron is commemorated with ceremonies throughout the country, large and small, and I attended three this evening which alternately matched and challenged my expectations:

Hassenfeld Family Community Center, Kiryat Hayovel, Jerusalem

In the early evening, the teen program at the Hassenfeld Family Community Center, in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood of Jerusalem, produced a musical presentation memorializing those who have died. Many of the teens sang, and others ran the sound board and recorded video of the event.

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The crowd was local, but filled the room to capacity, and the songs were generally sad and slow. They were performed without applause in between, to emphasize the solemnity of the day. A few of the teens explained the meanings of the songs, or their personal connection to what they sang. Most of the songs were traditionally sung in the Israeli army.

All of the singers wore coordinated white outfits, in a possible allusion to the styles typically worn on Shabbat or Yom Kippur. After the presentation, we headed out to the street for the first of two memorial air raid sirens, at 8 pm. I've learned since childhood that everyone stops for the siren, including drivers in the middle of the highway, and that it would be an amazing, awe-inspiring sight. Tonight, however, several cars continued driving amongst the ones that stopped. (When asked why, a local Israeli said that those drivers were just being jerks, rather than demonstrating some ideological opposition to the holiday.) The cars that stopped did nonetheless inspire awe, with their drivers standing alongside, and it was just as impactful in real life as I always imagined it to be.

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We then headed out to the main Jerusalem event. On the way, we passed through Ben Yehuda street, which was eerily silent for a Tuesday evening. Normally it would be bustling with tourists and young adult travel groups, but most businesses here close early on Erev Yom haZikaron. I was surprised to see a couple of 24-hour groceries and convenience stores that were still open, as well as a couple of the tourist-oriented Judaica shops on Ben Yehuda. We actually asked one of the Ben Yehuda proprietors why he was open, and he defensively assured me that he'd closed earlier in the evening, but had reopened to complete some paperwork. (Immediately after we left, he went to pull down the grate in front of his shop.)

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Jerusalem City Hall, Safra Square, Jerusalem

The next event in our evening was the central commemoration organized by Jerusalem's municipal government, on the plaza outside of city hall. This one was much bigger, and the audience extended past the seats to fill the entire plaza.

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The audience here was on the younger side, and listening attentively to the program. Most were dressed in a secular manner. Speakers and videos alternated with live musical performances, and the tone - like the first event - was subdued.  I wasn't familiar with many of the songs, but I recognized this one, Eili Eili, from my own Jewish education:

Western Wall Plaza, Jerusalem

We closed the evening at the Western Wall. The official ceremony had ended, but there was a memorial flame on the plaza, guarded by a pair of soldiers.

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The flame was interesting, but I was most fascinated by the mix of bystanders watching it from nearby. As I've come to expect from the Western Wall, it was an even mix of religious and secular observers, and the crowd grew when the time came for the soldiers to switch out. (No matter their observance level, most everyone watching had a smartphone out to record the moment.)

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If I'm being honest, the evening didn't actually end there. On the way back to our Airbnb, I had my first falafel of the trip. Only 16 shekels for the best pita I've had in a very long time. It had been a somber evening, of course, but it was nice to close it with one of my favorite things about Israel. Tomorrow, the daytime ceremonies of Yom haZikaron!

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As I write from the Brussels airport, about to board the second leg of my flight to Israel, my excitement grows for this trip, and for the entire project. This first trip will cover three holidays: Yom haZikaron, Yom ha'Atzmaut, and Shabbat. I have plans to attend events related to the first two in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with some flexibility based on what I discover in the process. Then, I'm heading to Beit Shean in the North for Shabbat, to experience an authentic small-town Sephardi Shabbat observance.

Across all three holidays, I'm approaching my observations with an outlook somewhere between educator and anthropologist. I want to observe and report each element of observance through an objective and unbiased lens, but I also want my findings to be relevant to the North American education community. This is a project with a goal: Not simply to observe the diversity of holiday observance across Israeli society, but to find concrete ways to represent that diversity for North American students (of all ages) and demonstrate the full breadth of cultures, observances, and ethnicities represented in Israeli society. Holiday observance is not the only lens through which to teach that diversity, but it is (hopefully) a simple and effective lens on which to base the initial incarnation of this project.

Thoughts on the project and its structure? Ideas for holiday-related activities that I could observe, or Israelis that I should interview? Please be in touch! This trip is very much a work in progress, and it would benefit from as much real-time feedback as possible. Meanwhile, follow my updates here over the next several days!