Most Jews living outside of Israel do not fully appreciate how different the three weeks that begin with the Passover Seder are in Israel.
After the long winter “off-season,” broken only briefly by Chanukah, Tu b’Shvat and Purim, in Israel there is an intense three week period of society-wide holidays and special days starting on Erev Pesach and concluding with Yom Haatzmaut.
The experience of these three weeks in Israel is very much a societal one. There’s so much here: Israeli flags are hung from city street lampposts and public buildings, as well as from many private homes and cars, during these weeks. Pesach includes the Seder and its special foods. Most families get together for the Seder, including those who identify as secular. During the week-long Passover holiday, school children are on vacation as are many offices and their employees, while others work only a half-day. Large numbers of Israeli families travel around the country, while one of the country’s major banks sponsors free admission to dozens of museums and other sites country-wide. In synagogues, Hallel is recited, the liturgy transitions from rain to dew, and counting the Omer begins. Then, the two weeks following Passover are highlighted by Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazicaron, and Yom Haatzmaut.
This cascade of holidays and special days, in their different observances, emphasizes the link of the individual with collective Jewish experience. We recall and, in some sense, relive our earliest history as a people and our recent history, the latter focusing on both the darkest and brightest Jewish events of the last century. We appreciate the values of freedom and responsibility for one another, and we celebrate the reality of the renewed independence of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.
In Diaspora, in contrast, Jewish observance occurs against the background of the dominant non-Jewish culture. Passover is not at all a society-wide experience; the general population is not off from school or work. Given the close proximity of Passover and Easter, it is the latter that is the focus of public awareness through the media and advertising in predominantly Christian countries. In this environment, and given the high rate of intermarriage and weakening religious observance, for most Jews in Diaspora, Passover is usually associated only with the Seder, rather than being a week-long festival/vacation period.
The distinction between Israel and Diaspora is even more salient when we come to Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazicaron and Yom Haatzmaut. In Israel, these days all include significant public ceremonies that are televised, and there is widespread and arresting participation in the sounding of sirens on Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazicaron. When the sirens sound, vehicular traffic overwhelmingly comes to a halt and people stand still in place, creating the sense that most people are involved.
Yom Hashoah is observed during the week following Passover, with the main ceremony held in the plaza of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, featuring speeches by the president and the prime minister, and the lighting of six large gas-lit flames. A two-minute siren sounds at 10:00 AM on the day of Yom Hashoah, followed by ceremonies that are held in schools and public institutions across the country. In Diaspora, many synagogues organize Yom Hashoah evening services. However, these are attended by a small part of the synagogue membership. There is, of course, no siren and no broad society-wide participation.
Yom Hazicaron, usually observed exactly one week later, is devoted to the memory of soldiers and others who have fallen in defense of the State of Israel. Sirens sound at 8:00 PM on Erev Yom Hazicaron, ushering in the main memorial service, which takes place at the Western Wall plaza. Sirens also sound at 11:00 AM on the day itself, the hour when special ceremonies take place at military cemeteries throughout the country. Radio and television programming on Israeli channels is adjusted to suit the somber mood of the day.
Last Yom Hazicaron, I was riding on the Jerusalem Light Rail at around 10:00 AM, nearing its terminus at Har Herzl, which is the site of the main military cemetery in Israel. As the train approached the station, the streets were full of people streaming towards the cemetery – some in uniform, a majority in civilian clothes. It is a day when family members who have lost a loved one, close acquaintances, and others visit the cemetery. The sight of huge numbers of people converging on the Har Herzl cemetery was vivid testimony of the wide impact the day has on Israeli society.
The very next day is Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s independence day, which falls on the Jewish calendar anniversary of the date the State of Israel was declared in 1948. A festive evening ceremony on Mount Herzl with fireworks begins Yom Haatzmaut. The day itself is a national holiday and huge numbers of Israelis celebrate with hiking and/or large barbecue get-togethers. Parks everywhere are crowded. For those who are observant, it is a day without the Halachic restrictions of Shabbat and Yom Tov, which adds to the ease and unity of the day.
One of the main themes of the Passover Seder is the contrast between slavery and freedom. And, the freedom that is emphasized in the Hagaddah is national freedom of the Jewish people and not just individual freedom. When our focus shifts to the Shoah, we confront the destruction of freedom for Jews under the Nazi regime, the subsequent enslavement and murder of millions, and abject Jewish powerlessness and defenselessness. The contrast with the freedom from Egyptian slavery celebrated a week earlier could not be greater.
The modern emergence of Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel is clearly understood, in light of the Shoah, as a necessity for Jewish survival going forward. The War of Independence exacted a very high price in terms of the number of fallen, and the recurring wars since have only added to that. Yet, the independence that has emerged and has been defended, and the rich and multi-faceted national life that has been achieved in Israel, are very much cherished. Jews have learned well that the opportunity “to be a free people in our land” comes with a heavy price. This is why the back-to-back timing of Yom Hazicaron and Yom Haatzmaut, though difficult, is appropriate.
Thus, there are clear linkages between Passover, Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazicaron and Yom Haatzmaut that blend them into a unified season, one that constitutes a meaningful high point in Israel’s national life, year after year.
In contrast to the broad national participation in Israel on Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazicaron and Yom Haatzmaut, the effort by Jews in Diaspora to mark these days tends to be forced, perhaps even artificial, attracting limited participation, as these are otherwise just ordinary workdays. So, while in Israel the three weeks from the beginning of Pesach to the end of Yom Haatzmaut constitute a real season, in Diaspora it is hardly a season at all.
We may conclude that there are very good reasons why many of those who live in Israel find the flow of these Spring holidays, and the broad societal way they are celebrated and commemorated, to be a rich part of the public life of the country.