Then, at 9:00 PM, a different mainstay of Israeli rock and pop takes to the stage at the adjacent Sultan’s Pool, the former reservoir that dates back to the days of Herod the Great. At an entrance fee of only NIS 55 ($15) for the entire shebang, it would be a bargain for the concert alone.
The festival is divided into two areas – one for Israeli artists and a second for international exhibits, from the Far East to South America, some 40 different countries in all. Street and gypsy performers mill about; there is an interactive performance space/café where the singers and dancers are also the waiters; a pavilion devoted to art from students at the Bezalel Academy looms large, and a frantic food court entices visitors to partake of an entrecote tortilla or that ubiquitous Israeli favorite: “Thailandi” noodles (which are nothing like what you’d actually get in Thailand).
The entrance to Hutzot HaYotzer has been spruced up too. For several years, one had to wind through a construction zone. That’s finished now – the result is the wet and wonderful Teddy Park with its musical fountain that has somehow turned into a free and fully clothed swim space for the city’s ultra-Orthodox population.
My wife and I have been going to Hutzot HaYotzer since we first arrived in Israel in 1984. Other than the few years we lived in the States, we’ve never missed it. But this year’s event, like Neil Young, America and Megadeth before it, was at risk of being shut down as the summer’s missile fire from Gaza made public gatherings of more than 1,000 people in the main centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv forbidden for our own safety.
Hutzot HaYotzer opened this year in that surreal period when the second to (hopefully) final ceasefire held for an all too brief seven days. And so the show went on.
We always pick the night we’ll attend the festival based on which band is performing. Over the years, we’ve caught stars like Aviv Geffen, Ivri Lider, Knissat HaSechel, Barry Sacharof and Tea Packs. This year, we chose alte-rocker Shalom Hanoch, who regularly performs his 70s and 80s hits at Hutzot HaYotzer but whom we’ve passed over for hipper entrants like Mosh Ben-Ari and HaDag Nahash.
By the time the concert started, every space except for a few nosebleed seats in the top bleachers was filled. The crowd was a classic Israeli multicultural, multigenerational melting pot. There were religious and secular, seniors and young families and lots of kids in backpacks and strollers. It always amazes me that teenagers still know all the words to songs written 40 years ago by an aging pop geezer.
When the lights finally went down and the smoke machine cranked up, out walked – not Shalom Hanoch – but Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who launched into a fiery political speech. I’m a big fan of Barkat but I was rolling my eyes: we came for the music not for a primer on why Jerusalem rocks…as a place to live and work. But his words soon proved to be much more than early electioneering. (The next polls won’t be until 2018.)
“How do we prevent the terrorists from defeating us?” he asked the crowd. “By coming out to sing together. By continuing with our normal life!” He praised the IDF and its soldiers. Then he announced he had a surprise.
“Every night here at Hutzot HaYotzer, we are saying thank you to a different military leader,” Barkat said, as he introduced the head of the IDF paratroopers, who said just a few brief words to acknowledge how important the nation’s support has been for the men and women in the field before yielding the stage to Shalom Hanoch.
It was at some point in the middle of that speech that it hit me: throughout Operation Protective Edge, Israelis found themselves marveling over the remarkable achdut – the national unity – that washed over the country. The feeling that the war in Gaza was a just one; that Hamas was an enemy that had to be taken on, was shared by nearly everyone, from the far left to the far right. You’d have to look pretty hard to find an Israeli Jew who would criticize the army’s efforts and the sacrifices of our soldiers.
But this was the first time that my wife and I had been together with other Israelis, in a large group setting, in public. There have been a few rallies that have slipped in during ceasefires – thousands gathered in Tel Aviv on August 14 and then again on August 18, for example – but most of the famous unity has been on a smaller scale: on social media, watching the news on TV, talking with friends on the phone or by forwarding supportive emails.
But here were thousands of Israelis, sitting together outdoors on a crisp Jerusalem night, cheering for our soldiers, as the mayor reminded us that this was more than a chance to dance; it was an opportunity to celebrate. We had not been defeated. We had not been broken. We can still sing together.
Shalom Hanoch acquitted himself splendidly, mixing his trademark ballads with a surprising number of head banging numbers. That wasn’t the point. The next day, the missiles started up again. The lull was over and it was back to the new normal for another week.
But for one night in Jerusalem, at least, the unity was far more than virtual.