Of all the holidays we expatriate Anglos in Israel miss from our North American childhoods, the 4th of July holds a special place. It’s a feel good holiday with hot dogs and fireworks and a great message about freedom and independence.
What’s not to like?
So, every fourth of July, the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel holds a get-together for the 150,000 or so strong English-speaking community here to reminisce, sing folk songs, and generally shmooze. (The celebration is an equal opportunity event, also commemorating Canada’s July 1st Independence Day).
In years past, the AACI party was held outdoors in Jerusalem’s Gan Sacher, but that location has been deemed too difficult to secure, so now the event is held at the Jerusalem Zoo. Which makes the whole thing even sweeter.
The Zoo is one of Jody and my most cherished spaces in all of Israel. It’s not so much for the animals and attractions as it is fact that this is a true zoological garden filled with rolling lawns, benches, shady trees and even a meandaring brook right down the middle.
It’s not a big zoo like the one in San Diego we visit every summer. But it’s very manageability is what makes it so charming.
In short, it’s the perfect place to go at the end of a hot Jerusalem day with a picnic lunch and enough money to purchase a few artickim (popsicles) for the kids.
It wasn’t always this way. The zoo only moved to its current location ten years ago. Before that, it was a dingy, concrete-centric collection of broken down cages and sorry looking animals housed in the midst of a residential neighborhood.
Its new location, funded by the Tisch family, is set just outside the city, past the Malcha Mall. A modern zoo, built entirely from scratch is, apparently, a big deal in the zoo world, and the designers gave it their all: there is a charming monkey island just as you enter, the buffaloes have ample room to roam, and they erected the best children’s playground in the city.
Not to mention a delightful re-creation of Noah’s Ark for the kids to climb on.
Which is fitting since the zoo is still known to many by its old name: the Biblical Zoo, comprised primarily of animals mentioned in the Bible. This, I suppose, is to contrast it with the country’s national zoo (also known as the Knesset).
Now, you may think that I wax too poetic here; after all, it’s only a zoo. But Jody and I have a longstanding fondness for zoos. After all, we were married at one.
For our wedding in August 1988, we found the perfect inexpensive hall. It just happened to be located on the grounds of the Oakland Zoo.
The hall wasn’t exactly next to the elephant cage, but the zoo train did pass by every twenty minutes. If you asked the zoo staff nicely, they’d agree to stifle the train’s toot-toot as it passed by. Otherwise the Rabbi might find himself making the blessing on the wine and it coming out “borei pri ha…toot-toot.”
To this day, I suspect that zoo has inadvertently invalidated scores of Jewish marriages.
The Jerusalem Zoo doesn’t hold weddings, but it is a remarkably safe environment. At the Fourth of July celebration, we let our kids run off without us while Jody and I sat on the grass with a couple of other friends. Were we were influenced by the day's theme of freedom and independence? Not really; it was just par for the course in Israel.
Indeed, the freedom children have to go off on their own, whether that’s picking up a slice of pizza or taking the bus downtown at age 9, is one of the things that people who visit Israel for the first time still comment on as being profoundly different from life in contemporary North America.
And if you think about it, it really is quite astounding that, despite all the terror and violence that has engulfed this region over the past few years, we still let our kids out of our sight. There is just no fear of kidnappings, of dangerous strangers lurking behind bushes.
Indeed, the opposite is true. One time we were at the park in Ra’anana and we lost track of the kids entirely. An hour later, a kindly elderly couple found us and asked: “Do these belong to you?”
Still, after awhile, we got a bit concerned. The kids been gone for over an hour now. Maybe they were lost? Maybe Aviv had fallen into the penguin pit and Amir and Merav were valiantly trying to fish him out. An announcement came over the Public Address system.
Closing time in 10 minutes.
In 5 minutes.
“The zoo is now closed. Please make your way to the exits.”
And no sign of our kids. Until…
Far on the horizon, we spotted three running figures, rounding the pelicans, passing the peacocks and then, before we could even blink, collapsing into our laps. Aviv was so out of breath he was practically asthmatic.
Had something happened? Was my dream vision of a still safe Israel about to be shattered?
Amir explained: “We heard the announcement. We didn’t want to be late.”
Merav added: “Aviv thought we were going to get locked in!”
"Not true!" Aviv protested.
And I thought to myself: look at that. They’ve learned an important lesson shared by both North American and Israeli culture.
That with freedom comes responsibility too.
Happy belated Fourth of July, wherever you are and however you celebrate it!