Young-at-heart flock to 53rd birthday party for Israel on Nob Hill

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The most eloquent spokespeople for Sunday's "Israel on Stage," the people most capable of speaking about Jewish continuity at the dawn of Israel's 53rd anniversary, were largely unavailable. They were too busy participating in other events — namely, getting their diapers changed, smearing their faces with paint, and taking naps when they got too cranky.

It's no accident that out of the few thousand people who attended the program at the Nob Hill Masonic Center, over one-fourth were children. Most of the festival's activities, which included finger-painting, clowns on stilts, balloon making and puppet shows, reflected that constituency.

The auditorium was divided into three different levels for the celebration, with the lower floor reserved for children, the main floor showcasing a variety of Israeli entertainers and the upper floor hosting a private function for the Israeli Consulate. Between the ongoing activities, afternoon and evening concerts, some 3,000 people showed up, estimated Rabbi Doug Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, one of the major sponsors of the day along with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the JCF's Israel Center and the consulate.

According to the organizers of the event, the youngsters were an important reminder of the generational ties that bind the Israeli and Jewish communities — links that take on added significance in light of the fighting in the Middle East.

The theme of continuity struck both a personal and professional note for event organizer Donny Inbar, the cultural attaché for the Consulate General of Israel. "Believe me, the reason there are so many children here has nothing to do with Israelis being too cheap to pay for babysitters," said Inbar with a laugh. He recalled attending chef school in San Francisco, and hearing restaurateurs describe the presence of children as "annoying and troublesome."

"For Israelis, it's natural to bring kids everywhere," said Inbar. "It's a very family-oriented society, and parents want Israeli children to have a passion for the language, the food, and the music."

Inbar also had other ties to the celebration. Famed Israeli children's entertainer Hanny Nahmias, kind of the sabra equivalent of Mr. Rogers, got her start as an 11-year-old ingénue in the play "Hannahleh and Her Sabbath Dress." One of her co-stars was a 9-year-old aspiring thespian…named Donny Inbar.

Among the kids who saw Nahmias perform was Yael Gilo of Woodside. When asked what made the event special, the freckle-faced 10-year-old said both her parents were Israeli, and that it was important to maintain that identity in America. Gilo also expressed her belief that Israel would weather all the current conflicts because the country had been through "so much bad stuff already."

Her mother was not so sure, however.

"It's impossible to live there without hope," said Shamaya Gilo. "Living over here as an Israeli causes a lot of internal conflict." While Gilo said that it was wonderful to connect with people who share the same history and memories, she added that she felt torn about not serving in the army in Israel or having her children serve. Like many others attending the festival, Gilo could not avoid commenting on the turmoil engulfing the region.

Saying that her politics lean strongly to the left, Gilo felt that many of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians over the past decade have come back to haunt the country.

Although many of the celebration's organizers pooh-poohed the notion that the conflict in the Middle East impacted the event, security presence was heavy. And many people acknowledged that even as they were celebrating Israel's anniversary, their thoughts were elsewhere.

Gal Dauber, who came to see legendary Israeli singer Shalom Hanoch, said he was not particularly anxious to return home. "It's really rough back there," said Dauber, who is traveling after completing his military obligations. "Costs are really high, and the job market stinks because all the tourism has dried up." Dauber sounded an optimistic note about the current U.S. government, however, saying that President Bush is much more pro-Israel than former President Clinton, who thrust his own political agendas into Middle East discussions.

Israeli ex-pat Amir Eden of Walnut Creek, continually tried to wave off any mention of Israel's troubles. And, although his friends insisted that Eden was normally a raconteur, he minced few words when answering a reporter's questions.

"I'm here because I'm Israeli, and this is our Independence Day, so it's really simple."

When confronted with another question, Eden responded: "There are many people in the Middle East who think that Israel's existence is in question. Well, it's not…and it never will be in the future, either."