Stand back, Britney Spears — you’re no longer the only act in Tel Aviv drawing unchecked excitement and unabashed fandom.
On Wednesday, thousands of Indian Israelis gathered in the city to greet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a glitzy, wild welcome for the first premier from their home country to visit the Jewish state.
Brightly colored Indian saris mingled with jeans and t-shirts — and not a few kippot and religious headscarves — at Wednesday’s event, which began with several Bollywood dance acts and a concert.
In the corner of the room, two 10-foot cardboard cutouts of Modi were thronged by teenagers and adults clamoring for selfies. Indian and Israeli flags were waved furiously by participants, and each act drew thunderous applause when the two countries’ banners were paraded on stage together.
Outside the hall, a billboard urged users to download a special mobile phone app created for the visit to “connect with the prime minister as never before.”
“It gives me chills,” said Naomi Yakub, who immigrated to Israel from India in the early 1970s and is part of a community of some 100,000 Indian Jews living in the country. For the Jewish community in Israel, “a meeting like this we haven’t had in 45 years,” she said.
“We love India, because we were born there and our parents are there,” added her friend Tal Shulamith, now a resident of Be’er Yaakov in central Israel. “It’s very emotional.”
A love song to Israel
Headlining the performances before the two leaders arrived was Sukhwinder Singh, the Bollywood singer of the Academy Award-winning “Jai Ho” theme song of the 2008 film “Slumdog Millionaire.”
With its lyrics translated into Hebrew and posted on a screen, a lavishly dressed Singh also sang a Hindi love song to Israel, gaudily titled “India + Israel = Love.”
“I sing a love song to peace
This India knows about love: there are no
differences among people
We love people from our heart
We know them as good friends
And everyone understands this — that we give out love
I am blessed that I am from India
Coming to Israel, to get a blessing from Israel
We don’t believe in war, we believe in love
In our custom there is one lesson — to respect others
We believe in God
We feel God
We believe God is in every element of nature
I am proud to say that God created me in India
That believes in peace
I am from India
And I sing with all my heart for Israel”
Later singing “Jai Ho” to the jubilant crowd, Singh grabbed the Indian and Israeli flags in each hand.
“India!” he yelled, as the crowd screamed and cheered in palpable delight.
“Israel!” he cried out, drawing a similarly enthralled reaction.
But the culmination of the community’s raw elation was reserved for the moment Modi and Netanyahu walked on stage to Academy Award-level applause and a solid two-minute standing ovation. The leaders — Modi dressed in blue-and-beige, Netanyahu in a blue tie — clasped hands triumphantly in the air.
“Modi! Modi! Modi!” chanted the observers, some of whom wore “I am a fan of Narendra Modi” t-shirts.
“Do you love India?” a grinning Netanyahu asked the crowd, setting off more vigorous air-punching and frantic cheers.
“Do you love Israel?” he added, receiving an equally enthusiastic response.
Hailing the strong bilateral ties between the two countries for 25 years, Netanyahu noted that “we always remember that there’s a human bridge between us — you. We admire you, we respect you, we love you.”
Taking the stage after Netanyahu, Modi gave a lengthy speech in Hindi to the crowd of mostly Indian immigrants.
“For the first time in 70 years an Indian PM has got an opportunity to visit Israel,” his office wrote on Twitter in English simultaneously. “This is a matter of joy.”
For Israel’s Indian community, it certainly was.