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Reminiscences of the Celebrate Israel Parade

As a senior citizen and Jewish New Yorker, a strong Israel supporter all my life, there was hardly a year when the parade for Israel was not a part of my adult life or that of my family. From ‘way back,’ when the parade was named ‘Salute to Israel,’ our daughters climbed on buses hired by our Conservative synagogue’s religious school. Many parents and other congregants climbed aboard too, and generations marched up Fifth Avenue together along with other organizations, and schools, and synagogue groups. Every year the ‘ruach,’ the spirit, was fantastic, the pride was enormous, the theme changed annually and evident in the banners, the music, and the pageantry. Many ethnic groups have their special parade day in NYC.

The parade for Israel had its origins in 1965, when thousands walked down Riverside Drive in support of the State of Israel, and this impromptu walk evolved to include Jewish community organizations, synagogues, marching bands, and floats and morphed into the Salute to Israel Parade on Fifth Avenue. In 2011 the JCRC, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, assumed management of the Parade and officially changed the event’s name to the Celebrate Israel Parade, celebrating the vibrancy and diversity of the State of Israel. Why New York City? So much Jewish American history began with and remains in NYC. With a diverse Jewish population and the largest Jewish population outside of Israel.

Several of those years stand out for me!  

For many years my synagogue was invited to march just behind the El Al airline pilots. El Al is known the world over for it superior service and dependability, and especially for its safety record. So marching in that designated spot was particularly fun.

Some years after our daughters were grown or away at school, we didn’t march, but joined the thousands of New Yorkers and other visitors who come from far, annually filled the streets, standing on the curbs, cheering and clapping, singing and beaming for the magnificent democratic nation that Israel has been and remains and will always be.

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The parade is so different for observers versus marchers. Marchers feel the support  of the onlookers, those lining the streets and curbs for blocks and blocks, but their view is static, and they felt  their  participation appreciated. As an observer though, a highlight besides enjoying fully enjoying the marchers, was to spot an acquaintance marching, or a dignitary, or a celebrity. No parade was complete until there was the ‘spotting of Dr Ruth Westheimer,’ a NYC icon, Israel supporter, and parade icon. Though there may have been clowns on stilts around her, her diminutive size did not take away from the ability of anyone nearby to note her presence, whether walking and shaking hands or scooting by in an electric scooter, always waving the Israeli flag.

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One year a while back, as observers rather than marchers, we noted minimal representation by Ethiopian Israelis, Jews of color. Soon after, the parade committee noted this too, and the following year, Riki Mullu, founder of the Chassida Shmella Ethiopian Jewish organization of North America marched with representation by the Ethiopian community and supporters. Ethiopian Israelis are so much a part of the multicultural  tapestry and diversity of Israel since the huge immigrations of the 1980’s and 1990’s. And just as the Jewish people live all over the world, many Ethiopian Jews live in the NYC area as well.

Another year as an observer, I took note of an announcer table nearby, those volunteers part of the ‘parade staff’ who were describing the groups passing by to the crowds lining the sidewalks, and wondered if I, too, could be an announcer, though I’d never had the desire to be a DJ.  I acted on my idea to learn about how parade announcers are selected, called soon after to volunteer as an announcer in a future year, thinking my own knowledge and Hebrew fluency might be an asset. Both my husband and I were accepted as volunteer announcers for the subsequent year after my inquiry, and after an orientation meeting, we learned the procedures, and were given our assignment location.

As with many volunteer assignments one cannot understand the details until one lives it, and this experience was not different. Though tremendous fun, it required spontaneity to a huge degree  and we loved every glorious wild minute of it! We arrived at our assigned location with our line-of-march loose leaf binders; one contained an alphabetical listing with descriptions of the participating groups and the other contained the [supposed] order of the line-of-march. “Why two?” I wondered….Well, we were about to find out!

So often in an undertaking as large as this, paperwork of participating groups can get a bit erratic. Announcer tables roughly 3-4 blocks apart, and consisted of a microphone for the announcer’s use, as well as a sound-system-guy who handled the music and CD’s in between marching groups. Lacking telescopes, we did our best, hurrying to find the approaching group’s page in our binders, so that we could read the text provided, and announce it to the public. Sometimes it went smoothy and perfectly, and other times, we improvised!

Alas, I DIGRESS… within the first hour we realized we’d be multi-tasking quite a bit: announcing the marchers but also- handing out Israeli flags stacked on our table, attempting to stabilize the legs of the tent as the wind kicked up periodically causing the tent to rock back and forth.  And that wind was no help as we flipped through pages first in one binder and then the other hoping to identify and read aloud the correct description of one marching group after another, passing the microphone back and forth between us. Often there’d be interruptions from the public surrounding us even as we spoke into the microphone; some seemed to think we had secret knowledge of the exact time when their children or grandchildren might be coming up the street. And then there were the dogs, who thought the poles holding up the tent were hydrants. And some dog owners may have thought so too, as they stood by and looked away.

How did we, my husband and I, handle all of this? 

We smiled a lot and pointed in the general direction of the great beyond of NYC when asked where there was a great restaurant or a clean bathroom. And we also realized: “Hey. We too haven’t eaten or had a drink in hours. And, we need a bathroom break too!” One thought we had was that an additional suggestion to volunteers might have been: “Be sure to get a good night’s sleep the night before!” But it was all GLORIOUS! 

Exhausted, after being at our announcer’s station non-stop roughly from 10:30am to 5 pm, and happy to have gotten a parking spot,  with only a small [now empty] bottle of water to sustain us, and time for one bite of a sandwich, we headed to a bathroom and a restaurant. As the afternoon had moved along, we’d said we’d never do this again! We were too exhausted! BUT… by the time we got home, we immediately signed up for the next year and then again.  And we would to this ALL AGAIN in a heartbeat. There are so many ways to volunteer and support Israel all year long!

Some years, after we were no longer announcers, we were offered seats in the VIP section, and we accepted, having the comfort of a seat instead of a ‘good spot’ at the curb. That too was an experience, with many celebrities seated around us.

We always noted that the VIPs present, as well as the organizations and the schools and synagogues, represented all parts of the political spectrum every year, being as diverse as Israel itself. Over the years, the parade changed in nature, depending on so many variables. Also, newer technology made a huge difference! Once the entire parade was made available/broadcast on tv or via livestream, many opted for the lazy manner of tuning in from one’s home, worldwide. Does it matter? It doesn’t lessen interest in Israel, though I am nostalgic for my own old in-person, live, parade days. Still, one can wear blue and white today from anywhere in the world, and support Israel in a myriad of ways. The parade: UNITED & SUPPORTIVE of Israel.

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THIS YEAR’s parade … in person or virtually, was FANTASTIC, with the 2022 theme: “TOGETHER AGAIN” .. since everyone is happy to be…
‘Together Again” as the “BLUE and the WHITE”
About the Author
Sandy Wasserman is a wife, mother, grandmother- LOVER of Israel and all things Jewish! She is a retired teacher and children's author.
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