Setting the stage for a daylong party

Upon immigrating to California from the Soviet Union, her family went straight to Disneyland, says Kira Soltanovich.

“Not for the rides,” notes the comedian, “for the lines. They assumed there’d be food at the end of them.”

If it’s lines and food Soltanovich wants — not to mention arts, crafts and lots of activity — she’ll find plenty at Israel in the Gardens, the Bay Area Jewish community’s annual lovefest for Israel. Presented by the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, in collaboration with the Consulate General of Israel, the event takes place June 1 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco.

With Israel celebrating its 60th anniversary, Soltanovich serves as emcee on the main stage, which means she gets to keep the crowd laughing and cheering.

That won’t be hard. The entertainment lineup this year should keep the expected crowd of 20,000 on its feet, especially with headliner, the Idan Raichel Project, rocking the house. Though the band has played the Bay Area before, this show marks their Israel in the Gardens debut.

Dreadlocked producer-songwriter and keyboard player Raichel has drawn worldwide attention for his fusion of contemporary rock with Sephardic, Mizrachi and other musical styles found in Israel. His band includes musicians of Yemeni, Moroccan, Ethiopian and Ashkenazi ancestry.

His emphasis on the music of Israel’s Falash Mura (Ethiopian) community sets his music apart. He became acquainted with the community’s music while working as a school counselor. “The Ethiopians have a great culture that should be cherished,” he says.

Raichel, 30, is the first to dismiss the “world music” label, saying what he and his bandmates play is nothing more than the sounds one hears anywhere in the streets of Tel Aviv.

And now he will bring those sounds to the Bay Area’s biggest Jewish party.

In addition to Raichel, the main stage will feature Russian-born classical

violinist Ilya Rayzman, who has taught at Stanford and now has his own music school in Saratoga. Expect a few treacherous cadenzas from the maestro.

Also on board: singer Neshama Carlebach, a troop of Russian folk dancers, the Israeli band Eggroll and an Israeli fashion show. Participating designers include Ronen Chen, No Name Shenkar, Dafna Ran and Kedem Sasson. Who will work it on the runway? You’ll have to show up to find out.

And all day, students from local Jewish day schools will sing and dance for the throng, with all performances drawing on the theme of Israel at 60.

Not all the action takes place on the main stage. In the east garden, Be’Chol Lashon will sponsor a West African drum circle, featuring Guinean dancer-teacher Naby Bangoura. Just don’t bang the drum slowly if you join in.

Always popular at Israel in the Gardens is the Mini Israeli Film Festival. Held nearby in the Metreon, it features short films from leading Israeli art and film schools such as the University of Tel Aviv, Sapir College and Bezalel. This year’s lineup includes a mix of documentary, drama and animation.

As for the mistress of ceremonies, Soltanovich has made her mark as an actress, writer and standup comedian. She’s a regular on the TV comedy “Girls Behaving Badly,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Red Eye” and “The Tonight Show.”

But she started right here in San Francisco, where her family immigrated. She attended West Portal Elementary and McAteer High (now School of the Arts), and to this day grows weepy when she walks along the Embarcadero. “I just love San Francisco so much,” she says.

Though she didn’t receive any religious training growing up, Soltanovich is proudly Jewish, saying “I did go to Jewish summer camps and I look like a Jew a mile away.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.