They came from near and far, on foot and by car. They rose early to spend their hard-earned wages, braved the traffic jams, searched for parking, bought popcorn, CDs and a package "including a signed poster." They came to drive away the darkness, as the Hanukkah song goes, to do-something-with-the-children on the holiday, because one simply must.

The woman seated next to me, her head covered, came from Shdemot Mehola, of all places. She, her eldest daughter and two of her nieces left the settlement where they live at dawn yesterday and slept at the grandparents, "to sniff a little of Tel Aviv." "Sniff?" True, the emcee did say, "This is a festival, not Assival," but for a moment it seemed the parents in the crowd needed something stronger than a sedative.

Half a dozen kids for every adult dragged into taking them to the festival. It's not yet 9 A.M. and already Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium is packed. The first show is about to start, followed by several more - after all, it's the holiday of the entertainers and promoters.

Sderot is very far away. The smell of hot dogs fills the air. Busts of David Ben-Gurion, Arthur Rubinstein and Friedrich Mann coldly look on, as if in disbelief. I glance outside to the rainy street. Electra-Bino excavation contractors is digging a giant hole. In the Gan Ya'akov park, the site of my earliest romances, a homeless man seeks shelter from the cold, and the intersection is hopelessly gridlocked. As a boy I directed traffic at that very intersection, as a school crossing guard.

The big comeback: The Children's Song Festival has returned. Not the Festigal, the Festival - the real thing from years gone by. Nearly 40 years have passed since Yigal Bashan and Irit Anavi sang "Lama Kacha." I was already a little too old for the Children's Song Festival, but most parents grew up with it. Today it's my first one, the only responsible adult in the whole place who came unencumbered by children. My little one is in basic training.

"You must bring a camera to the Festigal," one girl told-threatened her mother, proving utterly that it's not over 'til it's over: They'll go to the Festigal, too, before the holiday week is through.

For most of the audience this is the start of a day of treats: From here it's on to the Dizengoff Center mall, then the Azrieli Center mall, with a visit to the Ramat Aviv mall to top it all off. "Where are you going to? Keep close," hissed one mother goose with a baby on her chest and five toddlers toddling behind her, searching back and forth for the door leading to their seats.

"A big round of applause for your emcees, Tali Oron and Roi Bar Natan." High production values here. "Show your respect for the orchestra," the emcee said, but it's clear that respect was also shown toward mothers and children. No slapdash kiddie performance, this. A selection of winners from Israel's version of "American Idol," including Ninet, Israel Bar-On, Shai Gabso and Boaz Mauda for the children, Yehudit Ravitz and Gidi Gov for their parents. They sang old children's songs and brand-new ones that spoke, like the old ones, about God, Mommy and Daddy - not necessarily in that order - including "let us have no more wars."

"I love Mommy, and Daddy, too," Ravitz and Gov sang, "I love my sister, but most of all I love me," and suddenly there was a magical moment: Mothers, fathers and children all singing the same song, together.