Garrulous camels, great shmoozin at JCC

Yes, camels. The exotic creatures are as ubiquitous at an Israel Independence Day festival as green beer on St. Patrick's Day, and Sunday's celebration at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center did not disappoint.

Not one, not two, but three dromedaries — including Ruby, a garrulous, 4-month-old baby — took part in the festivities, much to the delight of the younger set.

"It was kinda scary," said 12-year-old Jaime Burdt of her ride atop a towering, fully grown camel. "I kept wobbling."

The camels were also inspirational to Orit Karni, 13, who plans to work on a farm some day — and raise elephants and monkeys.

For the camel riders' parents and many other adults, the fact that large, wooly and shockingly well-behaved camels (almost no spitting) could take center-stage for the kids at a pro-Israel event was a welcome relief.

Roughly 2,500 people listened to live music, bought falafel or simply shmoozed on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon at the belated Israel Independence Day celebration (it was April 17 this year) without having to look over their shoulders or endure loud protests.

"I'm shmoozing; that's what rabbis do. We shmooze," said Rabbi Yair Silverman of Berkeley's Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel. "People seem to be in wonderful spirits. It's a positive, pro-Israel activity that's been devoid of any tension. It's well-needed, well-deserved and, certainly, always appropriate."

Little children — some wearing yarmulkes and tzitzit, some wearing bathing suits — dashed through the crowded JCC patio while their parents laughed, ate or sampled a variety of Israeli products ranging from sodas to books to cosmetic products from the Dead Sea.

Vendors displayed stained glass challah plates, Shabbat candles, hand-woven kippot and tallitot and even an electronic, gyrating Chassidic rabbi who sang "Hava Negillah."

"It's a great day. Lotta Jews, lotta Jews," said Chabad of Berkeley's Rabbi Yitzchok Kaye while looking over the JCC's packed patio. "I'm new to the area, so if you asked me if I thought this many people would show up, I'd have said no. But it's encouraging to see so many Jews come out today. It could be that people want to show they're Jewish, that they're part of the community."

Ben Marcus, a congregant at Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, spent the morning explaining the concept of arson to his two young children after a suspicious fire at the Orthodox shul. Spending the afternoon at the festival was a welcome change of pace.

"After what happened this morning, this is a good feeling," he said as his daughter, Hanna, slipped a yarmulke she decorated with glitter and stickers onto his head and his son, Jordan, placed his own self-made yarmulke over his sister's. "The facepainter said she's been working at the JCC since 1991, and this is the most people's she's ever seen here."

Marcus wasn't the only festival-goer who came to support Israel in troubled times, leading to a larger crowd than the event's organizers anticipated.

Seeing so many Jews at an Independence Day festival "makes me feel better," said Karen Burdt, Jaime's mom. "It's a little bit difficult in my wheelchair. It's harder to shmooze. But the crowd has been very polite."

Eric Citron, an Orinda dentist attending with his wife and children, said he went to an Israel Independence Day festival five years ago, and, comparatively, "it was kind of dead. I think this is bigger, and I wonder if it is because of the crisis in the Mideast."

Citron, who, happily, stumbled across a kosher wine tasting, was clearly in good spirits. "It's a beautiful day, there's good food and good wine. How can you not have a good time?"

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.