It's my first torch lighting ceremony. I am sitting in Stand B, Row 19 on the right side with a little plastic Israeli flag. I'm no great nationalist, but what can I say, I'm a fan of little plastic flags. The sun had started to turn the pine trees on Mount Herzl a shade of red. A mother proudly asks her daughter who was Herzl. Her daughter responds, "The guy who took all the Jews out of Egypt." Then she tried again, "the person who envisioned the state," the girl says to her happy mother.
Behind me sit two girls who received the highly sought tickets through some connection in the Israel Defense Forces' Home Front Command. To my side, someone tells me that his son "is somebody very senior in the Knesset." Many Jerusalemites are addicted to the ceremony and fight to get a ticket. The girls behind me come every year. A few of the people behind me have attended the dress rehearsal over the years and this year finally succeeded in getting tickets to the real thing. "The dress rehearsal is exactly the same," they say trying to convince me. "It's also touching and the speaker of the Knesset is also there."
I glance at the list of torch-lighters and it appears impressive. Half women, half men, Jews of Middle Eastern descent, Jews of European decent, professors and kibbutzniks, a mayor, a heroic pilot, immigrants and one Arab from the Bedouin desert town of Rahat. In this, it resembles Yair Lapid's electoral list a bit – with the addition of an Arab. Not a single one of the torch-lighters is on my Facebook list of friends, although once in Geneva, I met the likeable Rishon Letzion Mayor, Dov Tzur, who is lighting a torch (or rather half a torch, along with a Rishon Letzion native teacher). I suggested to him to that he establish a House of Lords in the city. He didn't reject the proposal off hand, and invited me to take a tour of the city's lakes.
Up until the start of the ceremony, everyone talks on their cellphones. The girl sitting behind me, an expert on torch-lighting, speaks with a girlfriend on the phone about a date. "A group get-to-together with friends?" she says, "He should be a man and take me out alone on a date."
I figure that people can see on television more or less what we see from Stand B. The big difference is the freezing cold.
"It's cold here; every year it's the same shit," the girl sitting behind me whines as the cranes lift the giant torches in a manner that slightly frightens me. Yep, I'm also shivering, but Zionism and the journalistic mission are stronger within me than the freezing cold outside!
The stage is a giant Star of David with gravel on top of it. A white pyramid is placed above it all (perhaps symbolizing the exodus from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm?) and a verse from Psalms. The headlights illuminate the gravel in a shade of purple that is very reminiscent of the logo of the cellphone company Cellcom. Behind me, someone is going on about Romania's steel exports and then pulls out binoculars to see if the prime minister has arrived. Everyone is impressed by the technology, yet Netanyahu has yet to arrive. Stands B and C quickly fill up with less important guests of my type, but Stage A, just like its name indicates, fills up much slower as prominent individuals arrive at the last moment, while we the people freeze.
There is a couple behind me that present themselves as family friends of Hila Bezaleli, who was killed in an accident during the last year's rehearsal ceremony. The couple came instead of her parents, who gave them their tickets. Two girls make everyone get up and annoy one of the people arriving. In the other direction a fight almost erupts because there are empty spots and a distinguished woman can't find a place. "What is this? Where are the seated people?" she says. "What do you want?" they respond.
Nobody is dressed in a suit for the distinguished ceremony, since the cold forced them to pile on layers of clothing. The building of state institutions in Israel, of which this ceremony is one of the few remnants, is becoming extinct. I have a great fondness for announcer Dan Kaner, who holds onto to his institutional formality and in an interview spoke about how he wears a tie around the house. Unfortunately, he didn't host the event. Those who embrace institutional formality in Israel are a minority no less than the Circassians. They are ridiculed and persecuted even though they did no harm.
The audience is becoming hungry. "I haven't eaten anything today except for that awful Bamba," protests Maytal, who is sitting on the stairs. Her friend arrives and speaks about how emotional it was to be with the bereaved parents of fallen soldiers today on Mount Herzl and then moved on to argue about what was better, the iPhone or the Samsung Galaxy. Then the announcer declared, "The sound of explosives will be heard. Please clap for the military maneuvers."
Some trumpets are heard. The ceremony has begun. "How exciting," says some woman enthusiastically. On the stairs there is an argument over whether Israeli journalist and TV presenter Rino Tzror deserves to light a torch. "Who is he, anyway?" asks someone in the crowd.
Col. David Rokani, who looks like an amazing person, moves in a funny manner as he steps toward the Knesset speaker. "With your permission, I will continue with the ceremony," Rokani says to him. "What a cutie" gush the girls behind me, a sentence they will repeat every time Rokani makes another endearing step.
Gaya Maman from the TV show "Beit Sefer Lamuzika" ("Music School") sings in an angelic voice the song "Asur L'ktof Et Prahei Hagan" ("It's Forbidden to Pick the Garden Flowers)" and then Shlomo Gronich sings verses from Isaiah about the Temple while religious dancers move in impressive frog jumps. "Very beautiful," chime in the girls behind me.
"There is no time more Israeli than this," says Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. He speaks about this country's beauty, composed of Jews of European and Middle Eastern descent, of native born Israelis and immigrants. Of course, he omits the Arabs. Later, he reminds us that we are from the Negev development Netivot and the West Bank settlement of Beit El. Apparently, nobody in the country is from the Arabi-Israeli city of Tamra. "The future of the State of Israel is in your hands, youth," Edelstein concludes with great originality. Edelstein lights a torch in honor of a united and whole Jerusalem and for the imprisoned American spy Jonathan Pollard. The torches are lit by really impressive people, who did much to create the beautiful mosaic that is Israel. Because of the cold perhaps, I thought suddenly of social justice activist Daphni Leef. Indeed, her natural place is here and not some court bench for the accused.
The artistic component continues. Girls dressed in clothes that make them look like Roman legionaries dance with light sticks.
"They called Palestine, Israel," sings the army choir while someone manages to get himself and his wife some warm tea, blast him. At the finish, the girls make a blue Star of David. Two of the girls make a mistake, leaving part of the Star of David red. I have no criticism. I assume I also would have gotten things mixed up if I were in their place.
Then comes a really unusual bit a few minutes' long in which the flag-bearers arrange themselves in all sorts of shapes. The announcer explains what is going on because the shapes are impossible to recognize: from a yellow badge to a jar of oil.
The ceremony was a nice one and it looked like everyone enjoyed themselves. But even in Burkina Faso they enjoy military parades and military flag-bearers.
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The bottom line is that the ceremony presents Israel as an integration of the military and tradition – as in the Hebrew phrase – “from Tehillim [Psalms] to tilim [missiles].” It has very little connection to the real Israel, the one that sweats, struggles to make ends meet, that will watch the ceremony on television and read about it in the back pages of the paper.
Our lives have nothing to do with girls dancing in colorful dresses, golden trumpets, and the unit insignias, as beautiful as they might be. It’s actually the barbecues, the popular ceremony that sprung up from below, the skewering of meat and the fanning of the flames, along with that annoying foam spray, that are much more in tune with manic Israeli life. The karaoke stand that was set up afterward on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem at which they also sold hot dogs - that’s Independence Day.
When Rino Tzror, whose stinging speech was perhaps the only thing linking the torch-lighting ceremony to our burning reality, said “for the glory of the State of Israel,” as every torch-lighter is required to do, it was with a mischievous smile. Israel has some accomplishments to its credit, but glory? We’ve never seen that here.
The crowd was pleased though. “It was great,” summed up a teenager sitting next to me, who applauded devotedly throughout the ceremony, especially when the flags were arranged to form the word “Tzahal” [IDF]. Happy Independence Day.