'Ideology Is One Thing, Fun Is Another'

The colorful fireworks that exploded over Jerusalem on Independence Day left the students of the Kol Hatorah yeshiva rather cold. Like hundreds of their neighbors in the Bait Vagan neighborhood, they converged on Herzl Street to watch the show, but despite a few cries of delight, their overall reaction was critical.

"What can I tell you?" one of them said after the fireworks. "You go ahead and enjoy your state for a few years longer."

When the government under David Ben-Gurion designated the hill on which the students were standing as the burial site for Theodor Herzl's remains, Bait Vagan was still a mixed neighborhood, where secular and religious Jews lived side by side. Most of the religious residents were religious Zionists, and some of them later buried their sons near Herzl's grave, in the adjacent military plot. Now the secular residents are all but gone from the neighborhood, and religious Zionists are a fast-disappearing minority.

Nowadays, Bait Vagan is a large Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood replete with synagogues, yeshivas and other religious educational institutions. And it is rapidly extending its tentacles into the other neighborhoods on which it borders, like Kiryat Yovel and Kiryat Menachem.

But once a year, Haredi life halts, and half the residents go out to their balconies or the street. The neighborhood's proximity to Mount Herzl ensures its inhabitants front-row seats for Jerusalem's main Independence Day fireworks show.

"Ideology is one thing, fun is another," explained one Hasidic ultra-Orthodox resident as he watched the spectacle with his wife in the street. He is not the sort to hang an Israeli flag from his balcony. "But I take pleasure in celebrating, and in seeing other Jews wearing a smile on their faces," he said. "What more can you ask for?"

"I think it's a tremendous thing that the State of Israel was established, and its anniversary is a day of joy," he added. "It's true that the country isn't the way our people would have it be, but if everyone else is celebrating, then we are celebrating too. I don't feel excluded. We have Independence Day barbecues too, and many Haredim go the park and wave flags."

One hour before the fireworks began, Migdal Synagogue on Hapisga Street held a special prayer service to celebrate Israel's existence, complete with shofar blowing. But Migdal is one of the very few neighborhood synagogues where this custom can still be found. The worshipers at Migdal, all religious Zionists, are also all old. Their children have long since left Bait Vagan.

A few ultra-Orthodox children, whose parents are not among Migdal's usual frequenters, infiltrated the synagogues to see what was going on. They burst into laughter when they saw the national flag hanging alongside the Holy Ark. "They hang flags inside the synagogue!" one boy mocked.