Israeli Independence Day Celebration at Sholem Aleichem Gymnasium

“I thank God He has sent us the sun. And I thank God we will be celebrating the 70th birthday of the State of Israel next year,” Miša Jakobas, principal of the Sholem Aleichem ORT Gymnasium told a large crowd of students, teachers, parents, prominent members of the Jewish community and well-wishers on Tuesday at a celebration of Yom haAtzmaut, Israeli independence day, in the athletics field behind the school.

Children assembled well before the official start of the celebration to practice singing and dance moves, and slowly the crowd coalesced into a ring around pupils performing songs in Hebrew, including haTikvah, the Israeli national anthem, and Yerushalayim shel zahav, Jerusalem the Gold, as a warm golden sun promised the belated onset of spring. Small plastic Israeli flags were distributed to everyone who wanted one. On the track field a group of primary-grade students performed a flag marching ceremony, followed by a group of speakers on the opposite side of the crowd where the children had sung.

Principal Miša Jakobas was followed by Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky who asked some of the wilder children to settle down, joking such behavior didn’t belong on the playground, although it is acceptable at synagogue. She pointed to a building in the back corner of the school yard and said if things go to plan, this would be a new Jewish kindergarten in Vilnius where Jewish children would receive priority of place. Currently the Jewish kindergarten in Vilnius, Salvija, just across the river from Sholem Aleichem, accepts a large number of non-Jewish children as well and promotes itself as a inclusive multicultural environment, although it emphasizes Jewish holidays and culture.

Lithuanian Conservative Party leader Andrius Kubilius, who has consistently supported the Litvak community in Lithuania and abroad (he was a prime mover in passing amendment to Lithuania’s citizenship law to make Lithuanian citizenship more accessible to eligible Litvaks holding foreign passports, among other things), spoke about continuing efforts in Israel and Lithuania to build bridges between the two countries and predicted even closer bilateral ties in the future.

Another MP was introduced but did not speak.

Israel’s ambassador to Lithuania Amir Maimon asked the audience whether they had ever wondered why the Israeli flag was blue and white. He explained it was based on the suggestion by David Wolffsohn, the Jew from Darbėnai, Lithuania, who was a founding member of the Zionist movement, who answered the question of what flag the Jewish state should wave by saying the Jews already had a flag: the tallis, or prayer shawl, which the Torah says should include a blue thread. A small contingent with several large Israeli flags gave the ambassador the thumbs-up symbol and seemed to have been from that part of the country or somehow connected with the figure of Wolffsohn.

Jewish Lithuanian MP Emanuelis Zingeris spoke of the culmination of a long-standing dream and the upcoming generation of Lithuanian Jews, after which a young woman who had been graduated from Sholem Aleichem Gymnasium spoke. This was followed by an aerial acrobatics show, a large model airplane doing manoeuvres over the crowd to popular Jewish songs.

The airplane show seemed to break the spell holding the children back from the small tables containing treats, including bagel sandwiches and matzo kneydlakh soup from the Bagel Shop, and young and old swarmed the cupcakes, lox and soup without mercy. Latecomers got matzo balls and matzo with dip or nutella, and very few scraps were left over. The first item to run out was the beautiful tray of blue-and-white frosted cupcakes with Israel flag designs on top, apparently baked by the wife of the former Lithuanian ambassador to Israel.

The celebration was supposed to culminate in a choreographed fire show by young female performers who attended last year’s celebration at the school.

Overall the event was good plain fun and an American observer could be forgiven for thinking it carried something of the original holiday of Thanksgiving within it, with the food and treats and the meeting of peoples on common ground, albeit on the modern playground of Lithuania’s best school.