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It was a typical English summer's day. Intermittently the sun shone from a gray sky, while a west wind laden with rain spread damp air over a large section of Hyde Park. On one of the large expanses of grass, groups of people were sitting, interspersed by groups of kids running around. There was a stage in front of them, and shortly a blast of noise came from that direction, shaking the earth with the sound of "Hava Nagila." It was the Klezmer festival.
The performers, speaking in Yiddish, English and Hebrew, introduced various entertainers with and without instruments, each of whom made more noise than the last. Exhortations to join in and warm up were blasted through a microphone and slowly taken up by the front rows of people sprawled on the grass. The noise increased, as did the audience. Unobtrusively, around the perimeter of this crowd, which soon numbered more than a thousand people, young men paced the ever-expanding outer circle, eyes everywhere, hands in pockets, with only occasional glances at the stage.
The audience was cajoled and jollied and coaxed into joining in the songs. Israel was the theme and focus, and the grassy plot reverberated with shouts of "David King of Israel." If they did not know the songs - which many of them did not - they were encouraged to join in choruses of pure sound. Most of the audience - families with children, grandparents and toddlers - were slowly coaxed into following suit, stamping feet, choruses of "ya ya ya," hands clapping and bodies swaying.
It had to be assumed that many, if not most of the crowd were Jewish or somehow Jewish connected. There were, however, some others, including a group of Japanese ladies controlled by a guide holding a stick on which rested a Japanese flag. With great enthusiasm they clapped and stamped and sang "ya ya" when instructed to do so from the platform. There were also five or six women in colorful saris who joined in the choruses and movements, with every evidence of joyful participation.
Amateur musicians had been invited, so quite soon under the leader's baton was an orchestra of 15 violins, two accordions, a drum, several cellos and a xylophone, all amplified by several microphones on every patch of grass that could be sat or sprawled upon.
The noise was ear-shattering. Everyone who could walk was dancing, tapping feet, jigging and obviously joyfully taking part. Small babies slept on, unheeding. One three-week-old infant, safe in his great-grandmother's arms, puffed out what seemed to be a smile while his mother and father went off to jig. His great-grandmother's feet tapped out with all the rhythms that disturbed him not at all.
Attracted by the noise, several young gangs of boys came with their bikes, jigged and stamped with everybody else, looking slightly bewildered. A large stout gentleman, bearded and pot-bellied with a child on each elbow solemnly gyrated as near to the music as he could get, with serious concentration on his face. One cellist, worn out by participation, took a nap in her cello case, undisturbed by the musical mayhem going on around her.
Pamphlets about Israel were passed round, scrutinized and commented on with nods of approbation. There was a great air of camaraderie, of being together. In the circle, red-faced and puffing, a Professor of Mathematics joined hands with a small, grimy boy on one side and a soberly hatted lady on the other.
One must wonder whether those to whom "Israel" is an unknown country, are given the impression by those so joyfully taking part that this is what Israel is like. One hopes, if they fulfill their inclination to come and see for themselves, that they will not be disappointed at the optimism and friendliness they will find there.
Approaching me shyly, a young family with three children hesitated, then the young woman spoke: "Is it true you live in Israel?" I admitted it. "What's it like?" she asked.
I have been trying to find the answer to this question for the last 57 years, and so far have not come up with a satisfactory response. "Is it nice?"
"Well, sometimes it's nice."
Can I find another description? Exciting (maybe they're not looking for excitement!) Hot - yes. Interesting, challenging - all of the above.
"Yes," I answer, mildly. "It's quite nice really."