We are just days away from the barbecue bonanza which is Independence Day in Israel. When every spare piece of ground has a group of family and friends gathered, barbecuing the b’geesus out of their kebabs. When I say every spare piece of ground I mean parks, beaches, roundabouts, grass verges, bus stops. You think of a space and you will find a metal tray of burning charcoal set up and a group of people talking loudly aka arguing close by.
It’s a site to behold if you drive anywhere on Israel’s Independence Day, the lines to get into the national parks and the jostling for prime spots on the beaches, the parties being held in the parking lots of blocks of flats and the gatherings set up on the side of the road. This is a day when the air by 1pm is thick with smoke and the smell of roasting meat – not great if you’re a vegetarian.
Israelis like to bbq. No city park is complete without designated bbq areas complete with permanent bbq stands and picnic tables. Independence Day is just the day when EVERYBODY does it but in general every Saturday the secular masses take to the countryside and get cooking or at least eating. One of the things I would miss if I were to live anywhere else is the Saturday outings; when we go for walks or picnics or build bonfires or barbecues or all of that, out in one of the many beautiful national parks.
Why Saturday, why food, why the outings? Well:
1. A large proportion of people in Israel live in apartments. This is a tiny country, over half of which is desert, with many, many people living here, so every Saturday people make for the parks and outdoor spaces in their droves as the majority do not have gardens or even balconies to hang out in.
2. Saturday is the only full weekend day here. The weekend is Friday Saturday and on Friday children go to school in the morning and some people also work. (For the people who keep Shabbat this means that they really only have the non religious holidays to go out and about. Saturday is the day of rest where they don’t drive, cook, even turn on the electricity. It also means that all household chores, food shopping etc has to be done during the week – no mean feat if you are a working parent.) Just so you are clear this also means Sunday is a work day which takes a bit of getting used to when you’re from the West and as your friends and family are tucking into their Sunday roast you are at the office.
3. There is so much nature to see here. Nothing is that far away if you live in the centre of the country. 2 hours could get you to desert, the Dead Sea, the Galilee and in less than an hour you can be on the coast, in the Jerusalem mountains in the Carmel region.
4. People in Israel like to hike. In my experience in the UK some people like to hike. In Israel a large majority like to hike. They also like to jog, do triathlons, mountain bike, road bike, climb, pothole, windsurf, kitesurf, surf surf, play basketball, football, handball (yes this is a game where you use your hand as a bat and whack a ball around a pitch – its true I have seen it in action). Israel is the home of the fitness buff. I’ll have to think hard on why that is… Anyway it stands to reason that come the weekend, when the whole family is together, the obvious choice is to merge the 2 favourite pastimes of an Israeli, exercise and eating. Ah that’s the reason maybe, you can eat even more if you exercise first and in lieu of a back garden to go home to, you can bbq in the outdoor kitchen you set up in a park. Or if you are in my family, just skip the hike and go straight to the eating.
5. Food is key here. I have yet to meet someone here who does not cook, or go to friends or parents that cook. Food is a regular topic of conversation for all ages. Gathering over a meal is just about the single most important part of any holiday, weekend or just for the hell of it. The restaurants are amazing (in the main), even stopping at a service station will be a culinary experience. As everyone originates from a different part of the globe the choice is vast and each nationality has huge pride in their national food – don’t ever suggest to a Romanian that Turkish kebabs are better.
So back to Independence Day. Keeping in mind that it’s a bonus day off for just about everyone (secular and religious alike), what better way to spend the day doing these favourite activities, except that as it’s also a day of celebration and parties, you can handily ditch the exercise bit, gather as many people as possible and just get eating. Like most, we have a traditional gathering of the same group of people every year. Before everyone’s childers the bbq was held on a tiny balcony or a city roof but these days we are all ‘of the age’ of suburban living so the families gather (what was 20 people is now at least 40 including the rug rats) at our friend’s garden to bbq prawns and kebabs, steak and sausages and drink beer and put the world to rights. The kids run riot and I usually go home early evening with a hangover and an over inflated stomach. Marvellous.