Israelis celebrating Independence Day — in California

Three Israeli women from three generations who have moved to Los Angeles reflect on how they honor Remembrance Day and Independence Day far from home.

A crowd gathers in Los Angeles last year to hear a concert in celebration of Israel’s Independence Day. (Courtesy IAC) (photo credit: COURTESY IAC)
A crowd gathers in Los Angeles last year to hear a concert in celebration of Israel’s Independence Day. (Courtesy IAC)
(photo credit: COURTESY IAC)
It is not easy to celebrate one’s country, nor pass on a love of home to one’s children, when living abroad.
Though they may be far from the traditional barbecues and tearful ceremonies that take place in Jerusalem, Israelis who have moved to Los Angeles – whether recently or 20 years ago, (either way, it’s temporary, they claim) – find it critical to their identity as Israeli Americans to honor Independence Day and Remembrance Day in some way.
For Zofia Yalovsky, neither day has been the same since her brother’s death. The 22-year-old, who served as a pilot in the Israel Air Force, was killed during a special mission in 1965.
“You run the movie again and again in your head,” Yalovsky says from her office at the American Jewish University, where she serves as vice president of finance, administration and technology. “It’s not easy.”
Yalovsky, 69, left Israel with her husband and two of her three children – one who was in medical school at the time remained in Israel – nearly 20 years ago for an eight-month sabbatical.
Born and raised in Givatayim, Yalovsky served in the Israel Air Force before going into business and technology. She came to Los Angeles never intending to stay – a familiar trope among Israelis – but ultimately decided to study non-profit management and pursue her career here.
Today, her son and two grandchildren live in Israel, while her two daughters and three grandchildren live in LA. In years past, Yalovsky, whose mother is a third-generation sabra and whose father was born in Riga, Latvia, visited Israel for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut.
Today, she says, she attends a ceremony that students put together on the AJU campus, and if possible, attends a program run by the Israeli Consulate in LA for families of fallen soldiers. Ideally, she says, she would go to Israel to commemorate her brother’s memory, but due to work conflicts it is not always possible.
“Really here I don’t celebrate so much Yom Ha’atzmaut unless we do it with the students,” she says. “It depends on the student body if we do something bigger or smaller.”
She has gone to festivals for Independence Day held in LA, if she is in the mood, though it is tough after a day of mourning.
Still, Yalovsky believes David Ben-Gurion made the right decision having Independence Day immediately follow Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars.
“Without [this], you would not celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut. That’s the price.”
Yalovsky has never worried about her kids not feeling attached to Israel or to these national days in particular, since they were 14 and 16 when they moved, and had grown up already with a strong connection.
“I didn’t have ever a concern that they will lose it,” she says. “They had it very strong. It’s different if the kids are coming [to the US] young and you may have to work harder to ingrain it.”
Naomi Ackerman, who moved to Los Angeles from Tel Aviv in 2006 with her husband and two young children, works hard to imbue her children with a love for Israel, while also talking to them about the challenges Israel faces.
“We want them to love Israel and have a connection to Israel, as well as [understand] the complexities today about Israel and her independence and the price of her independence and what else is going on there... we talk about it in our house,” says Ackerman, 50. “It’s import-ant for me that they know that a lot of people’s lives were given so Israel could exist. We want them to celebrate Israel.”
Ackerman, a New York-native, made aliya at age nine with her family, grew up in Beersheba and then studied in Jerusalem. Today, her daughters – 11, nine and seven – attend public schools in Los Angeles, but feel a strong pull toward Israel.
While they commemorate Yom Hazikaron sometimes in synagogue and light a candle, and celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut at the Celebrate Israel Festival or with their synagogue, IKAR, it can be difficult setting aside the time. “It’s a school night. It’s a regular day, so that’s a challenge,” she says.
The Celebrate Israel Festival, which drew 15,000 attendees last year, according to its director Adee Drori, includes a “Salute to Israel” walk down Pico Boulevard, through a heavily Jewish and Israeli neighborhood, and a day celebrating Israeli arts, food, music and innovation. About 500-700 people, many of whom came from Jewish schools and synagogues, attended the march last year.
Drori says the festival is critical for Israelis who wish to hand down Israeli culture to their US-born children.
“Now that we have this huge event and [Israelis] know about it we have the opportunity to do that. If they don’t live in Israel they would never experience that.”
For the last four years, the festival has been run by the Israeli American Council, and is not held on the actual date of Yom Ha’atzmaut. This year the festival is on May 17, Jerusalem Day, so the theme is Jerusalem, and Drori is expecting 20,000 attendees.
Unlike for Yom Kippur, Ackerman says she would not take her kids out of school for Yom Ha’atzmaut. “In the Jewish community [here] it’s not celebrated on the day that it is... it’s our job to make sure they know it’s Yom Ha’atzmaut and that they celebrate it. We make sure to do that.”
Ackerman, who along with her husband left Israel for work opportunities, directs the Advot project, using the Hebrew word for “ripple,” a non-profit organization that offers theater programs to incarcerated youth. She also runs freelance theater programs in the Jewish community exploring topics such as Jewish identity, Israel and healthy relationships.
As a performer, Ackerman says she used to work on Independence Day in Israel, singing, dancing, emceeing and even as a professional clown at celebrations. “That killed my desire to ever go out to those places,” she jokes, admitting though that if they lived in Israel she would take her kids there, as well as to barbecues to be with friends and see the fireworks.
It has not been easy to find community in LA, she says, adding that there are fundamental differences between Israelis and Americans, though she estimates about half of their friends in LA are Israeli and half are American. “I have parts of me that are very Israeli and parts of me that are very American,” she says. When in Israel, people think of her as very American and in LA, she says she feels very Israeli.
“I’m direct, I’m honest. I say what I mean. I have a big mouth. I’m aggressive.”
For Yahel Michaeli, 25, moving to LA from Israel two years ago was not such a difficult transition. Raised on a moshav near Modi’in, Michaeli studies nutrition at Los Angeles Mission College and works as a waitress at Toast Cafe, a kosher restaurant and popular Israeli hangout in the valley, an area of the city home to many Israelis. She says all of her friends in LA are Israeli.
Last year on Yom Ha’atzmaut, her first in Los Angeles, her parents visited her, and they went to the Idan Raichel concert, the headliner at the Celebrate Israel Festival (this year features Shlomi Shabat). Though she misses her family, she says she does not miss being in Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut.
“It’s messy in Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut,” with the kids and the parties. “It’s crazy, it’s too much for me,” she says smiling.
Though she does not yet know how she will spend the holiday this year, she anticipates having to study as it will be close to her final exams, but probably attending the festival as well.
Israelis who live in LA are famous for never saying that their move is permanent, and Yalovsky, Ackerman and Michaeli are no exception.
Michaeli says she does not yet know how long she will stay in LA.
“For now I’m here, and I’m good here, and I’m studying, but what will happen next year, I don’t know,” she admits. “I’ll just go with the flow... if it’s too hard, I’ll go back. I’m not canceling any option.”
“We all want to go home,” says Ackerman. “Will it be able to happen? It’s complicated. That doesn’t devalue the fact that you want it.”
Yalovsky says very few Israelis will say their move to LA is forever, “and I cannot say it also is a final thing.”
The last census done on the LA Jewish community was in 1997, so it is not known today how many Israelis live here. Pini Herman, a principal at Phillips and Herman Demographic Research, was the LA Jewish Federation’s research coordinator for the 1997 survey. Herman estimated the population at 25,000 in 2012. The Israeli American Council puts the figure much higher on its website at 250,000 for Israelis who live in Greater LA, which includes LA County, Ventura County, San Bernadino County, Riverside County and Orange County.
Drori aims to attract as broad a showing as possible to the festival, though the largest group represented last year was Israeli and Israeli American, and most attendees were young children.
When buying tickets for last year’s festival, attendees were asked to identify their background (Israeli American, Russian Jewish, Persian Jewish, non-Jewish, etc.). Drori says 23% of attendees identified as Israeli American, 25% identified as Israeli and 38% as Jewish American. This year, festival organizers added a question to the registration about movement affiliation to learn more about the diversity of attendees.
Celebrate Israel festivals will also be held this year in New York City; Pembroke Pines, Florida; Boston; and Las Vegas, and thousands are expected. Attendees can look forward to walking through a 60-foot long model of the Kotel tunnels, placing a note in a model of the Kotel (which Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, will personally deliver to the actual Kotel), taking a picture with a large model of Robert Indiana’s Ahava sculpture, which sits at the Israel Museum, visiting Mahaneh Yehuda shuk complete with arts, crafts, jewelry and home goods, and meeting representatives of some Israeli tech startups.
Drori does not expect recent policy tensions between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cause any drop in attendance, as politics play no role in the festival. “Really, it’s about celebrating together,” she says. “I don’t think that’s the draw here at all. I hope it will never be.”
Drori, Israeli-born and a mother of two, says her eight and nine-yearold daughters who were both born in the US consider themselves Israeli.
“For me as a mother it’s very important for my family to know that as a Jewish nation we come together to celebrate the greatness of the country and to remember where we’re from and where our roots are from, and I hope this festival is the essence of what it is to be Jewish,” she says. “We always come together when it’s needed,” she adds, whether in times of war or celebration, all ethnicities and levels of observance.
“The festival is the pinnacle of our community... we have one thing that unites us all together, and that’s Israel.”