Israel in Gardens draws thousands to San Francisco

In the dressing room, which doubled as the break room for the substantial number of on-site San Francisco police, a cacophony of voices drifted in as keyboardist Tamir Kalisky watched two guitar players tune their instruments.

"We're not used to playing at these outdoor festivals anymore," said the 17-year rock veteran. "In Israel, the police tell us it's too dangerous to play at outside venues, so we're forced to play in small clubs and concert halls where security can be tighter."

Etnix could not have picked a more pleasant day for its first open-air concert in years, but police and organizers of the annual San Francisco festival mirrored the security concerns of their Israeli counterparts.

The Bay Area in particular has been a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment in particular over the past year, said festival director Caron Tabb, putting safety and security at the forefront of organizers' minds at the celebration of Israel's 54th birthday.

Droves of uniformed and plainclothes San Francisco police officers as well as Yerba Buena Gardens security guards, did little to dampen the mood of festivalgoers, who came by the thousands to enjoy an afternoon of Israel-oriented family entertainment.

Aside from dueling anti-Israel and pro-Israel airplane banners flying overhead, the festival went on without a problem all day.

From noon to 5 p.m., blue and white canopies and umbrellas and banners bridged the grass between the Sony Metreon and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Dodging juggling stilt-walkers and lining up for a turn at the face-painting booths, people from all over the Bay Area found their way through displays of Judaic art, jewelry and clothing to a spot in front of the main stage. Folk dancers spun and the student chorus from San Francisco's Brandeis Hillel Day School sang.

Computer monitors, video screens and periodic announcements highlighted Israel's contributions to the world during the course of its 54-year history, including those in health, art and science.

Moving deeper into the past, above the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial fountain, the Israel Antiquities Authority took visitors on a trip through Israel's ancient history, inviting them to handle actual unearthed artifacts, some dating back 4,000 years.

The emphasis of the festival, said Tabb, was to bring Israel to San Francisco in a way that transcended the troubles facing the Middle East. To accomplish this, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Israel Center spent months arranging for Israeli artists, artisans and vendors to come and bring a true flavor of Israel.

Meanwhile, as the nonstop hustle kept the door to the dressing room swinging open, every so often Kalisky looked up from his band mates in response to the noise coming in from outside. "How many people are supposed to be out there?"

"Somewhere between 6- and 7,000," Tabb said.

The band, used to sold-out concerts in Israel that typically number in the thousands, and expecting much lower numbers in San Francisco where they are lesser known, was admittedly skeptical of Tabb's estimate.

At the end of the day, the crowd was estimated as high as 8,000 to 10,000 as Columbia University's nationally known a cappella group Pizmon took to the stage.

Following the release of 54 white doves over Yerba Buena Gardens in a symbol of peace, the five members of Etnix stepped onto the stage to face thousands of applauding hands, many of them stenciled in henna tattoos, courtesy of the Israel body art booths.

The band sang songs of peace, love and harmony, in an assortment of Middle Eastern, Asian and American styles. Even to those who did not speak enough Hebrew to understand the lyrics, the band's messages resonated loud and clear.

"This year the festival has clearly put an emphasis on peace," said Leslie Cooper, a San Francisco resident who has been coming to the festival for years to show her solidarity with Israel. "There are signs and workshops for harmony among Arabs and Jews, not just Israelis. It's refreshing to find yourself in this kind of environment today."

That sense of solidarity was bolstered not only by the entertainment but by the presence of Israeli products. Flowers and herbs, clothing and fine art were flown in from Israel. By purchasing theses items, people were able to contribute to Israel's economy — long-hurt by a year of stilted tourism in the region.

Another popular way to help the Jewish state was through a CD drive, which accepted new or gently used music CDs to be sent as gifts to children and soldiers in Israel.

As the festival came to a close, Etnix retreated to the dressing room only hours before catching a plane back to Israel.

"The fact that so many people are here today means that even though we flew from Israel to San Francisco, in reality we have not left Israel at all — I feel like I'm still at home," said Kalisky, pausing. "That was amazing."