The Second Most Spectacular Thing in Israel this Sukkot

Just days before Gilad Shalit’s expected release, I was perusing a list of the “Top 5 most spectacular things to do in Israel on Sukkot,” I was struck by the amazing-looking, two-day Hot Air Balloon Festival, sheduled to take place Monday and Tuesday of Chol HaMoed in the Lower Galilee. I was captivated by the promotional photos of beautiful hot-air balloons floating in the sky. I found a soon-to-run-out coupon on one of those ‘deal-a-day’ sites for the event and hastily jumped on it, choosing Monday, the day before Gilad Shalit’s tentative release, as the ideal day to go.

Mere minutes after we’d bought the tickets I was reminded of the reason I don’t buy from offers written in Hebrew: the fine print. Turns out there was a tiny schedule printed on the bottom of the web page indicating the event start time as 3PM on Monday. Who starts events that late? We thought it was odd, but figured we’d just go the 2nd day, but it was ending about noon. What kind of event was this? Then we realized the whole point of the event was to camp overnight. After berating myself for being nitwitted, I tried cancelling altogether until it suddenly dawned on me – why can’t we just camp overnight? Once we got over that hump we started planning for the trip. After all, we weren’t going to miss one of the “most spectacular things in Israel this Sukkot”.

We bought our disposable grill, gathered tents and sleeping bags, and a ridiculous amount of stuff that any ‘real’ camper would scoff at. Luckily we went to a place filled with pseudo-campers like us who were carrying mattresses on their heads and lord-knows-what-else, so no one bothered scoffing at us. One thing we noticed right away were the large signs posted everywhere eagerly welcoming Gilad Shalit home, as he was expected the very next morning.

We entered the site to discover a tent city that puts the recent social action movement to shame. The rules seemed to go something like this: If you see a postage-stamp-sized area of ground, quickly grab it for your tent before someone else does. You know the beautiful prayer, “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov (‘How good are your tents, Jacob’)” that extols the modest and discrete way that the early Hebrews’ tents were set up? Well these were not those.

We had a hard time finding a place for ourselves until the kids found a fairly spacious area and began to put our stuff there. A family in the adjacent spot protested, ridiculously attempting to stake their claim to the wide expanse around their tents. We tried to ignore them and go on, unperturbed, setting up our things. Apparently they didn’t find themselves ridiculous at all for they opened up their table on our mat and sat at it to make their point.

Not wanting to make a scene, I was ready to move but my kids were horrified that I would wimp out like that. So I put on my ‘don’t-mess-with-us’ face on, rolled up my sleeves, and started to get into it with them. It got nowhere and may have made it worse. So I switched gears, put on my more natural smiley, ‘we-can-work-out-anything’ face, went on about how we are here all together, celebrating chol hamoed, and can’t we all give a bit for each other? It felt a heck of a lot better on me. And whaddya know? It worked! We moved a bit, they moved a bit, and to be on the safe side we avoided them like the plague the rest of the time…

Not long after dawn the thousands of us who had camped all night for the event were awoken for the main attraction. It was a truly incredible spectacle to see these gorgeous, massive balloons inflate and launch majestically into the perfect morning sky. All the while, the incredible excitement of Gilad Shalit’s imminent release was never far from our minds. In fact, the emcee of the program had one ear to the news and was bringing us updates as he had them. I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat when the announcement was made that “soon we will hear the news that Gilad is in Israeli hands!” I looked around at the other spectators. You could see the emotion on people’s faces. We may have come for the show, but certainly the most spectacular event of the morning was to be Gilad coming home.

We stopped in a store for ice cream. There was a wide screen television up on the wall and we caught the first glimpse of Gilad after he was freed. We were mesmerized. We sat down and found patrons and workers alike all crowded around the TV. The owner brought us all a plate of chocolate-covered nuts for free. We were ‘those strangers in the store crowded around the TV’ that you’d see in a movie at a climactic moment. We were living that moment.

It was then that it dawned on me. Here we were, a veritable sea of Israeli humanity, and with all the stupid bickering over camp sites, or pushing to get the best view of the hot air balloons, what was most important was the ‘humanity’ we demonstrate in caring so much about each individual that we would make such an outrageous deal to save one of ours.

As I watched and waited impatiently for every little tidbit of news, for another glimpse of Gilad, anything and everything, I looked around me at the Israelis of every stripe, all united for Gilad. As we all looked at the screen, focused on the most spectacular event in Israel this Sukkot, I felt myself tear up yet again as the emotions bubbled up within me for someone else’s son. Yet they are ALL our sons. That is our humanity. And that is truly spectacular.

About the Author

Laura Ben-David is the author of numerous articles and the book, MOVING UP: An Aliyah Journal, a memoir of her move to Israel. She has done public speaking about Israel and Aliyah all over the United States and Israel. Contact her at laura@aliyahbook.com or follow her tweets at http://www.twitter.com/laurabendavd