Clouds part, thousands party at Israel in the Gardens

Shmuel Hecht delicately counted the leather straps across the hairy forearm in front of him.

This was his job — teaching men how to lay tefillin — during Israel in the Gardens on Sunday, June 3.

The petit 13-year-old boy handled the leather phylacteries with care. He wore a black suit and wide-brimmed hat, and his eyes looked like dollops of Hershey’s syrup. He smiled as he handed a worn blue prayer book to Edward Gutkim, of San Francisco, who took it and said the Sh’ma with his “teacher,” 50 years his junior. Gutkim bent down when he finished the prayer so Hecht could reach his head, remove the kippah and tefillin, and replace the kippah.

“Now, kiss your tefillot,” he instructed.

Hecht, son of Rabbi Ahron Hecht, represented Chabad’s Richmond Torah Center, one of dozens of booths set up throughout Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco during Israel in the Gardens, an event planned by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Israel Center. Federation officials estimated 16-20,000 people attended the festival.

The line for the Flying Falafel stand was so long that the falafel workers — 12 of them — worked in an assembly line, passing the pita along as it was stuffed with fried chickpea balls, then cabbage, then hummus, then pickled vegetables.

In the “shuk” one level above the food vendors, people strolled by artisans selling fused glass mezuzahs and hand-stitched tallit bags from Ethiopia. A man sold children’s books, novels and cookbooks in Hebrew. And those looking for a piece of the Dead Sea could buy Ahava products.

“This is the closest thing we have to Israel, so I’ll take it,” said Harmon Shragge of San Francisco. He and his wife, Jorun, bring their three children to Israel in the Gardens every year.

Anticipating the long food lines, they brought their own lunch this year, snacking on carrots and sandwiches on a terrace overlooking the gardens. Their oldest, 10-year-old Ingrid, boasted that “I want to have my bat mitzvah in Israel.” Her dad smiled as if to say, “We’ll see.”

Ingrid and her little sister, 6-year-old Ulrika, mostly looked forward to collecting souvenirs from various vendors.

“We like collecting pens,” Ingrid said.

“Yeah, we love collecting pens,” Ulrika added. “Last year we got like 100.”

“It’s also fun to see all the Jewish people,” Ingrid said.

The kids’ area featured arts and crafts booths and a drum circle that found plenty of parents joining their children on the djembe. The djembe — an African hand drum — is known as the drum of unity, according to the drum leaders with Rhythm Village, an organization that promotes team-building through drumming. Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) invited Rhythm Village to Israel in the Gardens as a way to promote community.

“We wanted to bring together racially and ethnically diverse Jews,” said Beth Oelberger, a researcher for Be’chol Lashon. “Drumming works for adults and children. And music brings people together.”

So, too, did craft and dance at Yerba Buena Gardens.

Ziggy Livnat, an Israeli documentary filmmaker, taught children about Israel’s marine life, then instructed them in how to make fish out of plastic water and soda bottles.

Two-year-old Danielle Levi let go of her mom’s hand and shimmied over to a blue barrel filled with recycled bottles, which she couldn’t reach. So her mother, Neta Aharonovitch-Levi, dug through the bin and selected a clear bottle. Danielle took the bottle, climbed up onto a chair at the art station and reached for a cup of yellow tempera paint. She slathered the bottle with paint, and within minutes her pudgy hands were tinted yellow.

Neta and her husband were born in Israel, but have lived in Foster City for the past five years. Their two youngest children, Danielle and Itamar, 4, have never been to Israel.

“We come every year to Israel in the Gardens. It gives the children a sense of going back to Israel, just gives us a warm feeling,” she said.

“Even though you don’t know everyone, everyone looks familiar,” she added. “You feel like you’re home.”

Hagar Meged, an emissary from Israel based in Los Angeles, agreed with Levi. She estimated that she’s attended 20 Israel festivals this year, and cited San Francisco’s as “one of the best.”

She danced and jumped around in the afternoon sunshine, her tight curly hair moving up and down to the rhythm of Rita, one of Israel’s biggest pop stars, singing from the main stage. Meged waved an Israeli flag and sang along with the Hebrew lyrics.

“Israel is the place for Jews to be. It’s our only home,” she said, but added that she loves seeing crowds come out in American cities to celebrate the Jewish state.

Marlo Dewing, who grew up in Orinda, drove with her teenage daughters from Sacramento to the day-long festival. They participated in DanceElation, a new dance initiative organized by Jewish Family and Children’s Services. Dewing and her daughters took a salsa dance lesson instead of entering the competition.

“I like for them to see all of these Jewish activities and people, and to see a thriving Jewish community,” she said.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.