As America gets set to whoop it up for July 4th, I try to explain to Israeli friends how Americans celebrate their Independence Day–parades, picnics, fireworks and yes, sales, but the thing that catches their attention most is the 3-day weekend. Israelis count themselves lucky to get Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut in Hebrew) itself off, but a 3-day national holiday is all but unheard of here.
Israeli Independence Day falls in May–but even though the actual date that the state was declared was May 14 1948, today the country celebrates the date according to the Hebrew lunar calendar, the 5th of Iyar.
Unlike American Independence Day, the Israeli version is attached to Memorial Day, which is commemorated the day before, so the somber remembrance of those who fell in Israel’s wars gives way in an abrupt transition to the raucous celebration of Independence Day. Some Israelis have begun to question this tradition and there are moves afoot to separate the observance of the two days.
A significant portion of Israelis kick off Independence Day (which like all Jewish holidays starts the night before) with festive prayers that come with musical accompaniment. Open air parties and concerts take over most city public spaces, as downtown streets are closed and revelers dressed in the blue and white national colors take to the streets.
Traditional Israeli folk dancing goes on till all hours in some city squares, while others host DJs and the best Israeli entertainers. Fireworks light up the skies around midnight, when older folks head home, while the parties continue till dawn.
Like in America, the air force stages fly-bys in the morning, and there are all kinds of national ceremonies at the President’s Residence replete with marching bands and Israel’s more casual version of pomp and ceremony.
But the main activity that marks Israeli Independence Day is the mangal or barbeque. Israelis are legendary in their ability to find any spare spot of grass or empty space in which to set up their portable grills. Parks are packed, highways are grid-locked as the entire country takes to the roads to experience the Sunday that doesn’t exist in the Israeli work week. (Israelis work a 5-day week, but have Friday, a day to prepare for the Sabbath, and Saturday off).
And about those July 4 sales–in Israel no store (apart from convenience stores supplying the all-important mangal accessories) is open on Independence Day. It’s a celebration day, not a commercial day.