Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Memorial Day & Independence Day

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 20 April 1999

I think it is a very Jewish phenomenon that Memorial Day is observed the day before Independence Day here in Israel. It reminds me of the end of Jewish weddings, when the groom breaks a glass. The message is the same: in the midst of great happiness, do not forget the sorrows we have endured.

Unfortunately, the Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) - known here as Yom Ha Zikaron - is something Israel does very well. Perhaps that is because so many families have lost someone in a
war. I believe it is also because Israel is still a small enough country that people feel another's loss almost as if it were also their own. Every time a soldier is wounded or killed, his name and photograph are shown on the news. His family and friends are interviewed. Even if you didn't know the young man who was killed, by the end of the news you find yourself crying.

You won't find any Memorial Day sales, paper plates with the flag on them, or other brash commercialization of the observance. On the eve of the Memorial Day, a national memorial service takes place in Jerusalem at the Western Wall. It is broadcast live on every channel. At eight p.m., sirens sound throughout the country. Everyone (and I mean that literally) stops what he or she is doing and stands for several minutes in silence. In homes, people stop their conversations and stand; on public streets, people stop and get out of their cars. Once you have seen this, you never forget it. It is, all by itself, more powerful and moving than any other form of observance I've seen. The siren, and the minutes of silence, occur again in the morning. This custom is also followed on the Memorial Day for Victims of the Nazi Holocaust, which is observed one week before Yom Ha Zikaron.

The mood of Yom Ha Zikaron fills the whole country, as radio programs and television shows (even on the Children's Channel) tell story after story of the lives and deaths of the fallen soldiers from all of Israel's wars. Only somber music is played on the radio. Public buildings display and light memorial candles.

Yom Ha Zikaron, like all Jewish holidays, begins at sundown and ends after sundown the next day. Once the sun has set at the end of Memorial Day, exhuberant celebrations of the anniversary of the birth of Israel begin. Most neighborhoods and all cities hold communal parties, complete with music, dancing, games, and fireworks. Many people host parties at home, as well. Flags adorn not only houses and public buildings, but a great many cars, as well. Apartment dwellers hang flags vertically from their balconies. Streamers span major streets in the cities. Everywhere you look, you'll see the Israeli flag. In the words of one popular Independence Day song, "All the country is flags, flags..."

As wholeheartedly as the population embraces the grief and pain of Memorial Day, so too does it welcome the exhiliration of Independence Day (called Yom Ha Atzmaut in Hebrew). During the day there are parades, military displays on sea and in the air, and of course - barbecues. In every park, vacant lot or backyard - any place where it isn't against the law to light a fire - people set up their small grills and cook "al ha esh" (on the fire).

This swing from sadness to joy can be disconcerting at first, but I have found it to make a great deal of sense. In order to appreciate what we have, we must first acknowledge all we have lost to achieve it.

(c) Amy Samin

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