Thousands of Baltimore-area residents stepped onto Park Heights Avenue and walked through the re-created gates of Jerusalem yesterday to a daylong street festival in honor of Israel's 50th birthday.
The celebration included camel rides, historic re-enactments, crafts, ethnic foods, music and dancing. Displays lauded Israel's achievements in technology, culture and political freedoms and recognized Maryland's help in making the Jewish dream of a homeland a reality.
"The attachment American Jews feel for Israel is not terribly tangible," said Barbara Himmelrich, chairman of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, which helped sponsor the event. "But we are all very connected."
While Jews may differ in their political and or religious views, those differences were put aside as festival attendees stepped into the re-created Holy Land that included an archaeological dig, a kibbutz, a blacksmith shop, a market and rock climbing.
In the food lines, conversations in English melded with those in Russian and Hebrew. Many at the festival wore yarmulkes, but just as common were baseball caps. Black coats of the Orthodox were interspersed with T-shirts and denim. Children skipped through the crowd sucking on lemon sticks and the elderly sat clapping to the beat of a klezmer band.
Galina Katsnelson, who immigrated to the United States seven years ago, said the songs reminded her of music her father played in Belarus, where she grew up. "For me, it's so many memories," she said.
Some, like Nelda Brown and her family, were not Jewish, but came to learn more about Israel. "We have some Jewish friends and I want to know more about their culture," said Brown, who sat in a tent listening to a presentation on Israel's technological and agricultural achievements.
Although Israel was founded on May 14, 1948, the festival coordinators -- the Jewish Community Center, the Baltimore Jewish Council, and the federation -- decided to celebrate a little later in hopes of warmer weather, Himmelrich said.
Showers and cool weather threatened the festival, but thousands stayed to celebrate.
"Israel is our homeland. It is part of us," said 14-year-old Tzivi bTC Caplan, who was helping oversee a large game of Twister for children.
Inspiration from Baltimore
Baltimore's ties to the Jewish homeland began even before the modern state of Israel was declared. One story repeated yesterday was of the ship Exodus, which steamed out of Baltimore's port to ferry Jewish refugees from Europe to Israel. Although forced by the British Navy to turn back, the valiant resistance by the passengers and crew helped persuade the United Nations to recognize the state of Israel in 1948.
Thelma Katz said she remembers putting her pennies in little blue boxes to raise money to help Israel grow from a fledgling state of 600,000 to more than 5 million.
"We worked so long and hard and struggled for so many years," she said. "We finally got our own country."
Yet Katz, like many American Jews, has mixed emotions toward the country. Although she feels it is her homeland, she has never been there and hesitates to go. "I'm scared," she said.
'We fight to survive'
These conflicted feelings aren't lost on Shlomi Abukassiss, a 29-year-old Israeli who yesterday portrayed Israeli Gen. Moshe Dayan in a presentation on Israel's military struggles against its Arab neighbors.
Abukassiss, who came to the United States about a year ago, said he is struck by the differences in the way American Jews think of Israel and how Israeli Jews think of their home.
"The Americans see it as a holy land," he said. "But they are afraid to live there. We don't see it as a holy land. We are there to survive. We fight to survive."
Maryland's top political leaders, including Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, and Rep. Ben Cardin, attended the festival and pledged to support Israel, and Himmelrich urged those at the celebration to join them.
"Supporting Israel means more than just attending a festival," Himmelrich told the crowd. "It means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Israel through good times and bad. It means building economic partnerships to share the best of American technology with the Jewish state."
Larry Ziffer, an Orthodox Jew from Baltimore, summed up the feelings of many American Jews for Israel. "This can be your home," he said of America. "But that can still be your homeland."
Pub Date: 6/08/98