Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Yom Hazikaron

At 8pm Sunday night, a one-minute siren sounded throughout the country ushering in Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day, in Israel. Yom Hazikaron is always an emotional and inspiring day, as the country collectively reflects on the individuals who were killed serving the State of Israel. Monday morning I went to Har Herzl (Mount Herzl, the national military cemetery,) to participate in the national ceremony, which is broadcast over the radio. I stood erect and silent, overlooking a portion of the cemetery, as a two-minute siren brought the masses of Israelis to attention.

As the siren sounded, I was struck, as I am every year on Yom Hazikaron, by the diversity surrounding me at Har Herzl. The cemetery is packed with hundreds of thousands of Israelis, many of whom are visiting the grave of someone they knew personally. I saw families and friends huddled by individual graves. I saw units of young soldiers, in uniform, crowded around the graves of their friends and fellow soldiers who were recently killed. There were religious Israelis, secular Israelis, young, old, Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, people from every socio-economic strata. The army is an equalizer, bringing together Israelis from every strain, every background, every corner of the State and of the world. It is truly amazing to witness the unity that pervades Israeli society in mourning those heroes who fought, and died, for the State of Israel.

Though the number of Israelis who have lost their lives for the sake of this country, 22,684, sounds relatively small, in a country the size of Israel, it means that almost every Israeli family has either lost someone or knows someone personally who was killed. Even our prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, is from a bereaved family. His brother, Yoni Netanyahu, was killed in the heroic rescue of hijacked Israelis in 1976 during the Entebbe raid. During the national ceremony, Bibi spoke about his service in the most elite unit in the IDF, the sayeret mat"kal, and his recollections of holding his dying friend in his arms. I was struck by Mrs. Peretz, who, just a month ago, lost her second son, Eliraz, in Gaza. Mrs. Peretz was faced with the dilemma of which son's grave to stand by during the siren.

A mere eight hours later, the country transitioned from sadness and grief to celebration and joy as we celebrated Yom Ha'Atzmaut, Independence Day. I davened the special prayer service in honor of Yom Ha'atzmaut with hundreds of young Israelis, secular and religious, overlooking the Old City walls from a lookout point in Yemin Moshe, one of the first Jewish neighborhoods established outside of the Old City Walls in 1891. The tefila (prayer) was especially moving, accompanied by a keyboard, flutes, drums and harmonicas. With the powerful force of hundreds reciting Hallel together, we danced in circles rejoicing over the miracle that is the State of Israel.

My celebration was tempered as I realized I was standing behind Shaina Applebaum. Shaina Applbaum lost her father, Dr. David Applebaum and sister, Nava, on the eve of Nava's wedding in a 2003 suicide bombing. I was touched by this young woman's personal loss, and by our loss as a nation. The words of Natan Alterman's poem "The Silver Platter" ( raced through my mind. Our celebration is possible in this small country only because of the sacrifice of the 22,684 who have lost their lives.

And my heart sang as we declared together "זה היום עשה ה' נגילה ונשמחה בוThis is the day which G-d has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it."


Here's a guest post from my dear friend, Yael, about her experiences in Tel Aviv on Yom Hazikaron:

As I was finishing up a project on my computer, I happen to glance at the clock and see that it was 7:59 pm. It suddenly dawned on me that in one minute, the siren to commemorate the Israeli soldiers who died serving our country was about to sound. I quickly tried to shift mindsets from graphic design to the topic at hand and stood up just as the siren began. At that moment, I glanced out the window of my work corner to see a silent scene frozen in time. I live at the corner of a normally very busy Tel Aviv street. It is usually bustling with cars, buses, scooters and pedestrians. The rhythm of the AMPM (a chain of Tel Aviv mini markets) scanning machine has become part of the music that surrounds me in my apartment on a daily basis. But at 8:00 pm on the eve of Yom Hazikaron, I looked out of my window to see the AMPM gated shut along with the lights out on every single storefront on the street. An eerie darkness had settled over the almost empty boulevard. The two random passersby who happened to be on the street at that moment were frozen mid step standing in silence to remember. The scene moved me. It touched me to see how the daily grind had ceased in order to give the proper space for people to remember and pay tribute to the brave people who gave of themselves so that we can live in the country we live in today.

A few hours later, I walked over to Kikar Rabin to participate in the memorial concert that takes place there annually. The ceremony consists of famous singers performing songs and ballads of war that every Israeli school kid knows by heart. Interspersed between songs are the stories of soldiers who died in combat. The stories tell us about these brave men describing their beautiful personas both outside and inside the army. As I walked in the streets towards the memorial square, I realized I was being joined by masses of people. As I got closer, I saw that the masses were coming from all directions towards the square. The streets were quiet, there were barely any cars but there were people coming together. As I got to the square, I roamed around looking at the people. There were people of all age groups but the predominant strata of people there were the Tel Aviv Hipsters. There they were in all their glory, skinny jeans, Converses, Funky rimmed glasses, cigarettes in hand but they were there participating in the hurt that belongs to us all. While standing there, it struck me that most of these people were probably politically left wing and therefore most likely didn’t believe in the wars that were and are being fought but nonetheless they were there participating, absorbing the pain that is part of the fabric of our society.

As the stories of the soldiers came to an end, I saw individuals wiping away their tears and young couples holding each other tight. As we all stood together at the end of the ceremony singing Hatikva (Israel’s National Anthem), I heard the loud proud voices of everyone in that square come together. At that moment, I glanced to my immediate left and saw two Israeli women soldiers saluting as the anthem came to a close. Although we were all experiencing the loss, I felt whole.