At 5:30 a.m. on Thursday morning, Israel’s 68th Independence Day, Yuval Iluz staked a claim on a square of picnic ground in the Charuvit Forest in the Judean foothills, surrounding his ad-hoc homestead with blue-and-white Israeli flag bunting, laying out woven beach mats for the “relaxation corner,” setting up a large, multi-level gas grill and blowing up a bouncy castle for the kids.
“I took on the responsibility of organizing it myself this year,” said Iluz, who owns an air conditioning company and has the equipment necessary for schlepping and setting up a three-meter-high (10-foot-high) bouncy castle to a national park located 22 kilometers (13 miles) from his home.
Iluz’s parents, three siblings and their families, some 25 people in all, will gather for the barbecue, and though they could easily gather in one of their backyards, or his, with its own pool, they choose to join the rest of the Israeli nation on Thursday, bringing along everything but the proverbial kitchen sink.
“We deliberately go to the national parks,” said Iluz, 45, who lives in Moshav Arugot, where he and his siblings were born and raised. “It has more of the atmosphere of a holiday, of being with the Israeli nation.”
This concept of creating a temporary home away from home amidst hundreds or thousands of fellow revelers is what researcher Nir Avieli, a senior lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, calls being “alone together.”
Israelis want to be with the rest of the nation, and so they “crowd up to be ‘alone together,’” he said, using a term coined by researchers Rina Shapira and David Navon, in their analysis of the popularity of cafes in Israel — while making sure they stake out just the right plot of picnic ground for the day, of course.
Avieli has been studying the culture of the Israeli barbecue for the last eight years.
That tendency to stake out temporary territory is what Avieli calls the “Wall and Stockade” habit, referring to Zionist settlers in the 1930s who would set up a new settlement by putting up its wall and tower overnight, ensuring that the settlement would not be demolished by the British due to an Ottoman law that held that no building whose roof was completed could be destroyed.
Avieli pointed to the circumstances surrounding the establishment of Degania Alef, the country’s first kibbutz located on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. According to written accounts of the story, in 1910, ten men and two women stole over in the middle of the night to the area, known as Umm Juni, and staked their claim on land belonging to an existing Arab village. (The Degania Alef website tells the story differently, stating that in 1907, the Keren Kayemeth fund purchased all of the Umm Juni tract east of the Jordan River.)
“That’s how Jews build in Israel, it’s how they built the moshav and how they build illegal outposts now in the settlements,” he said. “And it continues with the mangal. They put up a flimsy fence and say, ‘this is mine for the day.’”
In Israel’s national parks, people demarcate their picnic area with flags, hammocks strung from nearby trees, and beach mats, those large, plastic woven rugs that are sturdy enough for sitting and sleeping, and are easily rolled up and stored between events.
At the Iluz barbecue, the family will also be easily identifiable by their matching blue-and-white t-shirts printed with the saying, “You don’t choose your family, but it works for us, the Iluzim.”
“I went all out this year,” said Iluz.
The family has embraced such elaborate celebrations for decades, since Yuval Iluz was small and his parents would take them to the Sea of Galilee for the barbecue.
The sumptuous feast they bring with them is only part of the story, said Iluz.
He made a list of mezze-style spreads and salads that his parents and siblings are to bring, divvying up among the five families the requisite hummus, tahini, eggplant, matboucha, spicy Turkish salad, creamy coleslaw (as opposed to the tangy cabbage salad), grilled red pepper salad, chopped cucumber-and-tomato salad and cucumber-dill salad.
One sibling is responsible for home-baked cakes, others are handling the paper goods and drinks, while he took sole responsibility for the meat, providing trays of chopped meat kebabs and boneless chicken pargiot, as well as entrecote and Asado steaks that will be grilled “on one huge grill that has different levels,” said Iluz.
And yes, Iluz will be the one manning the grill.
The intricate preparations surrounding a barbecue set up in a public park aren’t all that unusual for many Israeli families on Independence Day (or during Passover or Sukkot, both holidays that often bring locals out of doors). Most don’t include an inflatable bouncy castle, but there are those who tie hammocks to trees, bring along generators in order to tune in to the TV and uncork bottles of Israeli boutique wines to drink along with their medium-rare steaks.
It’s all tied to the changes in Israeli society, said Avieli. The kumzitz, the colloquial Yiddishism referring to the campfires of yore, where coffee was boiled and potatoes and onions were tucked under firewood and cooked while friends sat around and sang songs, was a favorite pre- and early-state activity of the Palmach fighters that “was austere and modest” in nature, he said.
Those early pioneers and their families have become the bourgeois capitalists of the country, he said, “the ones who got rich and don’t do kumzitz that way any more.”
The sophisticated and extravagant touches also show influences from the US, said Avieli, who is currently an Israel Institute Fellow at Middlebury College in Vermont and has recently written about US-Israel relations — another element he sees at play in Israelis’ Independence Day rituals.
“It’s the imitation of America,” he said. “America is all about being elaborate. They have different equipment for everything, no matter how big your house is, it’s always full of stuff.”
For Israelis, said Avieli, that abundance of equipment and food is a sign of status, whether apparent in the number of mezze salads served or the kinds of meat grilled on the barbecue. For Israelis, it’s a symbol that they have arrived.
Or perhaps a sign of how things have changed.
Until the 1980s, Israelis generally celebrated Israel’s Independence Day by attending public performances and local fairs, folk dancing and singing, hiking, visiting army bases and watching the national Bible quiz on TV.
Now, grilling meat over a fire — al ha’esh — has become the quintessential activity that marks the day.
Israelis call the barbecue a mangal, originally a Turkish term for a bronze bowl filled with charcoal that was used for heating or cooking.
Avieli, who has observed the mangal rituals for eight years at Jerusalem’s Sacher Park, offers more than one explanation for its growing popularity.
“The chunks of grilled meat are pieces of distilled Israeliness, symbolic and material representations of the way many Israelis experience their national identity,” he wrote in “A Wall and a Grill: Independence Day Barbecues.”
These deeper messages of the barbecue have been noted by scholars worldwide. The barbecue culture is said to imitate American and Australian cowboys, or the gauchos, the cowboys familiar in Brazilian, Argentinian and Uruguayan societies. Meat on the grill often represents money and power, as well as masculinity and the conquest of space.
And while simple metal grills were once the most familiar types of barbecues used, the outdoor cooking apparatus has grown in both size and price.
According to the Israeli second-hand resale website Yad2, April saw 58,218 requests for secondhand grills, an increase of 73% from the previous month, which ranged in price from NIS 80 ($21) to NIS 4,500 ($1,200) for a multi-level gas grill.
But not everybody has the same need to be “alone together,” grilling meat and scarfing salads among thousands in a national park.
Elinor Cohen, who grew up and still lives in the East Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem, will be traveling with her husband, children and friends to the Dead Sea, where they will hike the arid hills — and have a barbecue for lunch.
“For tradition’s sake, there will be a grill, standing where it needs to be, but it’s not the main reason for the party,” she said.
For Cohen, who works in the Justice Ministry, Independence Day is about her pride in being Israeli.
“I always put up flags on the house and on the cars, and I always make a special cake,” she said. Cohen posted photos of her decorated yard and blue-and-white frosted cupcakes on a Facebook group for Jerusalem mothers. “But I think that this year, there are fewer flags on cars, there’s less of a celebratory atmosphere, maybe because of what’s going on, and that angers me. The proud Israeli needs to stand strong.”
Cohen wrote a poem to accompany her photos of frosted cupcakes and a decorated yard, urging others to hang flags and celebrate the day.
Ultimately, the same desire drives Iluz and his over-the-top Independence Day barbecue party, as well as the oversized, blue-and-white electric Star of David he places on his house each year.
“We Jews have a lot of holidays, but Israeli Independence Day is very special,” he said. “In 68 years, we’ve done what many nations haven’t succeeded in doing, in technology and science and army power. We’re in a geographically difficult location, and while there’s a lot that we can improve upon, we’ve done well and that’s what I want to celebrate.”