At 8:00 pm last night I found myself standing stock still, along with a hundred other people on the grassy slope outside the hadar ochel (dining hall) at Kibbutz Mizra. The siren that heralds the beginning of Yom HaZikaron (Remembrance Day) began its minute-long wail heard all across the country. Every town and village is equipped with the warning siren, used in past years to alert the residents to take cover. Last night, it was to alert everyone to stop. Everything. Everything froze. If you were driving on the road, you would have stopped you car and gotten out. If you were in the middle of a conversation, you would have just stopped mid sentence. There were no sounds at all. No cars, radios, conversation. Even the ubiquitous and always annoying telephone, WhatsApp, and texting notifications and rings were strangely silent. A country the size of the state of New Jersey entered into a country-wide moment of silence (with a different meaning for those who are Jewish as opposed to those who are not). I tried to imagine New Jersey standing still for a moment. Just a moment. A moment composed of sixty long seconds, where the entire country stands still in remembrance of those who have fallen. Those sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, grandchildren, friends, all of whom have been lost in the wars, intifadas, and terrorist attacks of this country. As the siren began to wind down and fade, I could hear those in the neighboring areas likewise lose their wail, a diminishing sequence like a cry that echoed from soul to soul to soul.
I had two distinct thoughts as I looked around—one, that every person over the age of 17 who stood there on the green, grateful for its cool night air after our first day of 95 degree heat, had probably served in the army. Or at least, someone in their immediate family. Young men and women who had just finished their army tour stood with their arms wrapped around their loved ones. Old people stood, lost in thought of those they had lost during the earlier days of this country, their own experiences, or the wonder of what was and what now is. This thought was like an awakening for me. I don’t think I had ever been in a situation such as this. After taking this in, my thoughts naturally morphed into a comparison with my own memories of Memorial Day celebrations in the US: Parades with floats with men wearing silly fez hats as they sat with their bodies crammed into absurd little cars that scooted around each other as they took their place in the lineup of many such inanities of a Memorial Day parade. Little boys who march as cub or boy scouts. High school bands wearing garish, itchy, woolen uniforms and painful white bucks as they played some Sousa march and looked for welcome landmarks that would tell them how closer they were to finishing this agony. Of course, some soldiers who fought in previous wars either marched or sat in slow moving cars to wave at the (rarely) applauding crowds. Even though they should be the focus of the day, they always seemed like interlopers into the holiday festivities.
Of course, I couldn’t help but think of all the much-advertised sales in every single store (showing their pride to be Americans). And finally, let’s not forget the BBQs. Memorial Day marks the official opening day of summer and the due date by which you had to have your beach parking pass. I cringe even thinking about the chasm between the two celebrations. But truth to tell, even as a child I felt something was wrong, misplaced. Either that, or the day was misnamed. Perhaps the biggest difference is really in semantics. Is it a celebration or a commemoration?
We leave the ceremony, brief, yet touching, after the singing of the Hatikvah. Sung quietly and gently, like a lullaby perhaps for those who sleep a different sleep than the living. I look through the crowd to a permanent memorial constructed on the kibbutz that commemorates those from the kibbutz family who had fallen, to a young man and woman dressed in white T-shirts and blue jeans, standing at full attention as they flank the tall memorial flame. They will be relieved by others guards at hourly shifts, all throughout the night and the next day, in a personal and almost intimate gesture of understanding and respect.
The crowd moves silently into the chadar ochel, not to eat, but to stop and gaze thoughtfully at the photographs of all the members of the kibbutz who have been lost. And then we enter the beautiful little theater to watch a short documentary, brilliantly conceived and executed, that has family and friends retell the stories of those who have been lost. Not in a maudlin way, but in a matter of fact, sometimes tearful, retelling. I see many of the people from the documentary sitting in the audience. This makes it much more personal. I’m beginning to know these people. I’m beginning to realize what they’ve encountered in their lives. I’m moving deeper into my understanding of the sacrifices that people before me, whether young like my children, or older like myself, have made so that I can have this second chance at life here in Israel. It puts me in my place, reminds me that my own sacrifices, those that sapped me of my strength years before, are not in the same league as those made by the people sitting around me. It reinforces priorities. It’s a mental triage.
The ceremony ends with a loving song performed by two members of the kibbutz. A gift of music to soften the reality, ever so slightly.
I return home and light a yahrzeit candle as I look out in the darkness of my apartment. The lights on the horizon are those of Mt. Gilboa, where King Saul had his final battle with the Philistines and where David wept at the loss of friends, and in the distance, those of Jenin. I think of Israel’s ancient past and immediate future, and of my new life here in Israel.
Oddly, I don’t feel as if I’m a stranger here, just someone who has a great deal of learning and understanding ahead of me.