Israeli Perspective

04.15.13

The Upper West Side Celebrates An Imaginary Israel’s Birthday

The streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side thrummed with excitement on Sunday. What was supposed to be a holiday had turned into a political drama. Barely 24 hours had passed since Prime Minister Salam Fayyad resigned from the Palestinian Authority and left the Middle East with another corner of stunned uncertainty. How can you celebrate with street fairs and Bamba stalls when Israel is marking its 65th year with another blow to its political future?

Okay, so that’s not exactly how it was. If any of the people who had come to celebrate Independence Day on the Upper West Side had read the news about Fayyad’s resignation in the morning, they’d managed to forget about it by afternoon, when Israeli street fairs—at least, that’s how they were advertised—began to hatch in the neighborhood streets in honor of Israel’s 65th birthday. The fair promised a sophisticated taste of Israeliness. But it was a Sunday, after all, and something had to be done to entertain the kids.

As soon as I entered West 100th Street, I understood that this experience was going to involve time travel. When I was a kid, maybe seven years old, I used to imagine that Moses had come back to life, and of all the people in the world he’d chosen me to lead him through the depths of Jerusalem in the late seventies. I was primarily concerned with my limited ability to provide technological explanations. What is a car? How does a toilet work? What is a zipper? And what did we do to deserve to see the day when, finally, we had our own country, the State of Israel? At the age of seven, I didn’t skimp on the pathos.

This weekend, at the Upper West Side fair, I got Jewish New York’s 2013 version of that journey of Moses. It was a journey on which I encountered their Israel. The Israel that exists only as a romantic fantasy in their minds. The Israel that exists as a remnant of yellowing photographs from an old album, from that time they walked up Ben Yehuda Street or down Nahalat Binyamin, when everyone was still beautiful and thin and very Zionist.

At the stalls, between the chance to decorate a hamsa and the opportunity to embellish a mezuzah, one of the organizers circulates and urges the audience to wear a sticker of the Israeli flag. My eight-year-old politely declines. He's not a post-Zionist, he’s just not into stickers. Fifteen minutes later, when he’s finished coloring his hamsa, she’s impressed with the design and advises him to improve it by adding a little more decoration, say, an Israeli flag sticker.

At the next stall, children are invited to design their own mosaics made of Jerusalem stones. “This really is from Jerusalem,” clarifies a young volunteer, pulling out another bag of stones—the more dignified and artistic version of holy water from the Jordan River.

It all looks and smells very familiar. David Broza sings "Bedouin Love Song," and then a live band sings a little "Lu Yehi," with one particularly enthusiastic participant bursting into her own version of Israeli dance. Only the hora, only at the solo, and only her. The woman with the stickers finds a new victim. Someone offers hummus. A few minutes later, I understand why it all feels like a round of deja vu. On West 100th Street, a window has briefly opened up, offering a glimpse of Israel in the seventies. Beautiful, white and confident. A pleasant tourist icon whose dark side has not yet been exposed.

I have a short and painful flashback to “I Like Mike," the film that was broadcast on Israeli television every Independence Day throughout my childhood. Written by Aharon Megged, it was a satire about the Israeli’s fantasy of the American Jew (clean, polite and rich) and what happens when it collides with the American Jew’s fantasy of the Israeli (militant, tanned and leathery). Spoiler alert: it wasn’t love that emerged, only dialogue between clichés.

Meanwhile, a nearby stand encourages people to sign up for a volunteer program on IDF military bases—Sar-El Volunteers for Israel—under the motto: THE BEST GIFT YOU CAN GIVE ISRAEL…IS YOURSELF. It aims to create yet another generation of people who will conduct dialogue with the imaginary Israel.

Done with the art stall, the kids demand to move on to the camels, which—according to the brochure—are waiting over by Columbia University. But it quickly becomes clear that there are no camels, though there are inflatable bouncy houses, naturally.

Here, we can at least take comfort in the fact that the seventies are behind us. The fair organizers at Colombia—Hillel students—are much more up to date. They won’t be sold on the Israel of oranges and Hava Nagila. They’ve got their finger on the pulse. It’s just that this particular pulse stopped beating in the nineties.

Berry Sakharof and Ehud Banai are playing in the background. The group of students smoking hookahs on a mat serves as a reminder of the elusive dream of a new Middle East. If we close our eyes really tight, we can almost hear rightists whispering, "Rabin is a traitor." Here, they’ve already discovered that Mizrahim also live in Israel. Church of Reason, a band whose popularity peaked in the early nineties, blasts from the speakers. In the center of the street, somebody is painting henna tattoos. Any minute now, Ehud Barak will be elected Prime Minister and make a disaster out of Camp David.

The kids grab a bag of pizza-flavored Bissli and move off to jump on the inflatable bouncy house, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I wonder: Am I just as blind to my own environment? When I walk around New York, am I just as limited to the perspectives of Woody Allen and Lou Reed, who revealed this city to me years before I ever visited it? Are we all stuck in the pristine images of reality as it once was, on the first date? For me, it’s the New York of “Annie Hall” and “Transformer.” For local Jews, it’s the Israel that saw itself as innocent, ambitious and beautiful, after the Six Day War and after Oslo.

Or maybe American Jews simply have no choice. What can they cling to if not the Jerusalem of Gold and Naomi Shemer? Who else will comfort them? Avigdor Lieberman? So, let them. Let them close their eyes and dance the hora with themselves. And next time, let them bring camels, too. After all, they promised.