Israeli parents have a love-hate relationship with Chanukah. 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 Chanukah in Israel. With winter weather limiting outside activities, the Chanukah 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 Chanukah.
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 eight 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 Stage 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 few of the performances and circulated an open letter to protest “the values derived from” last 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.”
“I would never take my kids to Festigal,” one irate Jerusalem mother said in an interview. “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 parent involved in the protests. While a large percentage of the audience gets discounted tickets via workers’ unions and credit card companies, Hayat complained about the $44 full-price ticket. “The cost of entertaining children has now reached hundreds of shekels and without any justification at all,” she said.
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 contest that ran from the early 1970s to 1987. Once that event died, Festigal began its commercial rise and became the proving 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 to12 years old, the show’s prime target market.
The theme for Festigal 2012 is SpyFestigal 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 Chanukah,” acknowledged Allison Sommer, a mother of three from Ra’anana who has taken her kids to many Festigals. Sommer said the shows have two sections, with a break during which DVDs and Festigal paraphernalia are on sale.
“There’s definitely blatant commercial product placement at Festigal,” Sommer said. “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.”
Jeffrey Woolf, a senior lecturer in Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and an expert in halachah 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 said the Maccabees of the Chanukah 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.
He said that while the secular Zionists who built the country seized on Chanukah as a role model to fight for freedom, and found the historical Chanukah 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 charged.
Ironically, almost every Israeli today lights a Chanukiah or takes part in a public candlelighting ritual and eats sufganiyot, Woolf said, but the message of the holiday has been lost and supplanted by Festigal-like commercialism.