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Israeli parents have a love-hate relationship with Hanukkah. They love the festive atmosphere, the public menorah lightings and sufganiyot (the Israeli doughnut), but schools are closed for nine days while offices and businesses remain open, so there’s a scramble to find ways to keep kids occupied.
Enter the commercialization of Hanukkah in Israel. With winter weather limiting outside activities, the Hanukkah vacation has become the season for an astounding number of performances and events catering to every age group in almost every corner of the country. But few of them have anything to do with the message of Hanukkah.
The granddaddy of them all is the Festigal, a state-of-the-art super sophisticated show featuring the country’s most popular entertainers, that packs 500,000 kids and their parents into more than 100 shows in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa and grosses tens of millions of shekels in revenue per season.
This year’s extravaganza, produced by Stage Design Israel, features 8 LED screens and a revolving stage, designed and shipped over from the prestigious British Kinesys Design Company. “The Israeli market is always keen on new effects,” notes Design Israel’s Eyal Lavie.
Increasingly, Festigal has been criticized for its strong commercial message and high ticket prices. Last year, the Israeli Scouts Movement held demonstrations outside a couple of the performances and circulated an open letter to protest “the values derived from this year’s Festigal, which stand in complete contradiction to our moral principles.”
Each year Festigal adopts a theme, and last year it was Technology in the World, focusing on Facebook and iPhone. Israel Boy and Girl Scouts Federation officials said the implication that every child must own an expensive smartphone sends a “clear and problematic message.” One irate Jerusalem mother told JNS.org, “I would never take my kids to Festigal. I’m opposed to everything it represents, especially the prices.”
Activists in Israel’s summer 2011 social protest movement also voiced objections to the event, citing exorbitant ticket prices. “We parents will not continue to be anyone’s suckers,” said Tali Hayat, a Nes Tziona parent involved in the protests. While a large percentage of the audience gets discounted tickets via workers’ unions and credit card companies, Hayat complains about the 170 NIS ($44) full price ticket. “The cost of entertaining children has now reached hundreds of shekels and without any justification at all.”
It wasn’t always that way. Festigal started as a local show in Haifa in 1980 as a competitor to the popular Israel Children’s Song Festival, a song contest that ran between the early 1970s and 1987. Once the Song Festival died, Festigal began its commercial rise and became the proofing ground for dozens of performers looking for a showcase to gain recognition.
Over the years, cable TV became widespread in Israel and The Children’s Channel morphed into a prime form of entertainment for Israeli kids. Performers on the channel are featured in Festigal and are instantly recognizable to kids from 4-12 years old, the show’s prime target market.
The theme for Festigal 2012 is SpyFestigal (spelled out in English) and includes well-known entertainers such as Shiri Maimon, Asaf Herz, Dana Frider and Ethnix. In the promo video, the stars belt out a Hebrew version of Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la vida loca.”
“Festigal has nothing to do with Hanukkah,” acknowledges Allison Sommer, a mother of three from Ra’anana who has taken her kids to many Festigals. Sommer explains that the shows have two sections with a break where DVDs and Festigal paraphernalia is on sale. “There’s definitely blatant commercial product placement at Festigal,” Sommer says. “It’s a place for kids who are already exposed to pop culture on TV to see all their favorite performers in one fell swoop.”
Dr. Jeffrey Woolf, a senior lecturer in Talmud at Bar Ilan University and an expert in halakha and modernity, sees the Festigal phenomenon as part of a deliberate move on the part of “certain elements in academia and the Ministry of Education to dejudaize the school curriculum and Israel’s public spaces.”
Woolf says that the Maccabees of the Hanukkah story who resisted Hellenism “are exactly what today’s secular Israeli intellectuals do not want to imitate.” The intellectual elite, according to Woolf, has given up on the idea of Jewish particularism.
Woolf explains that while the secular Zionists who built the country seized on Hanukkah as a role model to fight for freedom and found the historical Hanukkah story inspiring and a way to link Jews to their ideological roots, today the historical and religious significance of the holiday has diminished. “Part of the reason for that is the failure of the religious community to establish a common language with secular Israelis,” he charges.
Ironically, Woolf adds, almost every Israeli today lights a Hanukkia or takes part in a public candle lighting ritual and eats sufganiyot, but the message of the holiday has been lost and supplanted by Festigal-like commercialism.