For the 8,000 Jews who celebrated the 50th anniversary of Israel's statehood in Irvine on Sunday, nothing tasted sweeter than freedom--not even the latkes and blintzes they devoured, and which eventually sold out, during the daylong festival.
"Wow, these are good," David Levin gushed over the pastries, which he was supposed to be sharing with his 3-year-old daughter, Eva. She stared intently at Levin, of Newport Beach, as he popped the last bite of a blintz stuffed with cream cheese into his mouth and shrugged. "She didn't really get an even split here, I know, I know. But I couldn't help it."
The event, held in Aldrich Park at UC Irvine, was a carnival celebration complete with 130 booths, games and live music that organizers billed as the largest gathering ever of Jews in Orange County.
Through song and fellowship, they proudly honored their homeland and each other, where they'd been and where they are going, and found unity in a simple theme: "We exist."
"This day is most symbolic, especially sweet, because it marks the 50th year of the existence of Israel," said Meir Ben Shosham, a retired Orange County surgeon and Jewish Community Center volunteer. "This state survived against all odds and logic. We survived through persecution and exile, and today we say, 'Look at us now.' Today, as it should be always, we are so very proud."
Families and festival-goers reflected on those sentiments throughout the day, as children dashed around a giant, inflatable obstacle course and tried their luck at any number of midway-style games. A highlight of the fair was performances by the Gevatron, a renowned 20-member Israeli choral group on tour in the United States.
Stephanie Freidman of Costa Mesa said the atmosphere and celebratory mood in the park was reminiscent of a "mini shtetl"--as close as one can get, anyway, to the Eastern European small-town Jewish communities here in Southern California, which is home to the third-largest Jewish community in the world.
She watched as her 11-year-old son, Jacob, carefully assembled his own falafel at one of the many kosher food booths.
"We have four generations of Freidmans here today. But I look around and see a much larger family," said Freidman, 39. "It's a wonderful feeling. I can't describe it."
That's precisely what sponsors with the Jewish Community Center in Costa Mesa hoped for when they planned the event, which is held on a much smaller scale each year, said Moises Paz, the group's executive director.
Besides encouraging solidarity among the estimated 75,000 Jews in Orange County, this year's event also centered on pride in Israel, arguably the strongest country in the Middle East with a $95-billion economy and a nuclear-armed military, Paz said.
"Israel stands for the fulfillment of people's dreams," he said. "It symbolizes democracy and freedom in the Middle East, a place where such liberties don't exist very much. It symbolizes tolerance. Surely everyone, Jewish or not, can appreciate that."