Almost every city and town in Israel puts on a big show for Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence Day (yesterday). This year, Kiryat Bialik has a new mayor whose basic campaign platform boiled down to "Let's Spend Lots of Money so that We Look Better than Kiryat Motzkin," so true to form we had a fabulous Yom HaAtzmaut show.
Fireworks are just part: we also had a free concert from THREE major Israeli artists (Sarit Hadad, Beit HaBubot-- a really great young band-- and Dag Nachash, who sadly we didn't see because by that time it was midnight and pretty cold out). Israeli artists spend Yom HaAtzmaut eve traveling from town to town performing. The night after Yom HaAtzmaut, Sarit Hadad was on a comedy TV show joking about how she couldn't even remember which town she was in most of the time... although the punch line had to do with thinking she was in the Phillipines when she played for a community of mostly senior citizens. If you lived in Israel, you'd understand why!
As we waited for Beit HaBubot to arrive from wherever they had performed last, different youth singing and dance troops performed. Some of the performances were incredible-- the "prachei Bialik" were a group of Ethiopian young people singing Hebrew songs with that Ethiopian twist-- pure voices, swaying dances, harmonies. They sang one song that was a hit from the Sheba Choir, a choir of Ethiopian kids that was very popular in Israeli back in the early 90s. If you listen to music during sefirot, check out this youtube video to discover the Sheba choir:
(Our Kiryat Bialik kids actually sounded more beautiful, despite the fact that they were just a group of four or five!)
Celebrating Ethiopian singing seems to be trendy in Israel today, with the success of one of my favorite bands in the world, the Idan Raichel Project. I saw them perform in New York City and I'm very tempted to go see them again in Haifa in June. Idan Raichel gathered together singers representing all origins of Israeli life-- Iranian, Ethiopian, European, Yemenite, Argentinian, even Sudanese-- and forged an incredible blend. This video doesn't have the greatest sound quality, but it shows the magical visual and sound fusion of their concerts:
I love the way that immigrant cultures in Israel-- somewhat as they do in the US-- remain distinct to the point that the discussion around our barbecue table yesterday centered around Romanian vs. Iraqi cooking (and yet, this discussion was generated by a wonderful couple in which the girl is of Iraqi descent-- with a Russian name--and the guy is Romanian-Polish). I love that we celebrate Ethiopian dance as an integral part of Israeli Independence day. The Ethiopian aliyah has been a fiasco in some ways, with Ethiopian adults essentially time traveling hundreds of years forward into a modern world they were unprepared to handle. But Ethiopian kids seem to be proud and contributing parts of Israeli society, so I think Ethiopians will only become more prominent in Israeli life during the years to come.
Then, though, when one of the other (non-Ethiopian) youth dance troupes was performing, I saw something that honestly disturbed me. This group-- of about 10-12 year olds-- broke from the traditional songs of the other groups and instead performed a hip-hop dance montage to songs that included "I Like Big Buts" by Sir Mix-a-lot. Hardly what I would consider Zionist, but hey, it's a fun song. Then, towards the end of their performance, a kid came out with a mask that looked like Sambo-- a horribly caricatured black face. He was wearing a hat, overalls, and was dancing in those loose, floppy movements I have only seen in black-and-white footage. And nobody in the audience seemed to react.
I suppose to the dance choreographers, this was simply a "funny" iconic image from another culture-- one they probably didn't really attach to racism but more to a cute dance style. After all, they liked African-American culture enough to dance to a mix of hip-hop music on Israeli Independence Day. Obviously, we don't have the history of race relations that the US has had that renders the US-- finally-- sensitive to such horrible stereotypes. Israelis use terms casually that shock Americans, including, say, the n-word.
But I can't believe that those Ethiopian girls were entirely blind to the racist undertones in the performance after their beautiful dance. They actually walked past me in a line (returning to their own seats) as the performance was going on, and their faces looked grim... I felt like disappearing into my seat. I was once in a clothing store when a white sales girl tried to point out an Ethiopian sales girl by saying, "the black girl" (in English), and she got such a glare from the Ethiopian girl. It reminded me that not all Israelis see casual references to race as benign.
It is refreshing to live in a country that doesn't hold by "political correctness" and where people actually say what they think, but sometimes I wish Israelis were more sensitive. In fact, I'm hesitant to post this in a public forum at all, except that I want your opinions. Is this just my American-ness showing through? What do you think about the state of racial relations in Israel? Was I right in being shocked by this performance, and do you think I should do anything about it (say, complain to the city council)?
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