Although people in Jerusalem have begun to take down the small flags flying from their car windows, the remnants of Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut are still a palpable part of our days here in Israel.  Much has been written about the significance of the fact that Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence day) come one day after the other, but until you live here, it is hard to understand just how significant it is.  These are some insights from my incredible experiences on this amazing week.

Sitting on Ammunition Hill – the site of one of the key battles in the Six Day War -amongst hundreds of Israeli paratroopers, hearing the Yizkor memorial prayer being recited by the unit’s chief rabbi, with the families of those who have fallen defending the State and people of Israel, is awe-inspiring. Soldiers stood at attention. Reacting perfectly to the commands of their Sergeant.  Candles were lit. Songs were sung. Prayers were recited. Families spoke. Videos of our fallen heroes were played. Surrounding the military formality, however, was the distinct feeling of family. The feeling of loss. The feeling of mutual purpose. The feeling of brotherhood – achdud. The feeling of Jewish Pride.  The feeling of statehood.  The feeling of Israel.

Later that same night, I was privileged to join the people of Kfar Etzion for their Yom Hazikaron event.  Kfar Etzion is a kibbutz located 10 minutes outside Jerusalem in the Gush Etzion area of the Judean Hills. It is the site of a massacre, which occurred just two days before Israel won the War of Independence.  After a two-day battle with the Arab Legion, 129 Haganah soldiers were slaughtered by the Jordanians after surrendering. If you haven’t been, you should absolutely go visit the Gush Etzion Visitor Center and Museum to learn about this battle and the region.

At this beautiful Religious-Zionist kibbutz, Yom Hazikaron is spent in a large tent with the entire community, and a band made up of members of the kibbutz playing famous songs about those who we lost. The music was simple. The melodies beautiful. The words tear-inducing.  Luckily all of the words scrolled through a large screen for all to sing along. Hours of music. One song stood out. Ehud Manor’s song Yehuda.
Please take a minute to listen to it and read the words. This song expresses the feeling of the night perfectly.

Click here to listen.

This is a song Manor wrote for his younger brother, Yehuda, who was killed defending our State and our People during the famous Six Day War in 1967.

My young brother Yehudah,
do you hear?
do you know?
The sun still rises every morning
and its light is white,
and in the evening the wind scatters
the leaves of the garden.
The first rain
came down two days ago
on Tuesday evening,
and the sky is visible again,
in the puddle on the main road.

My young brother Yehudah,
do you hear?
do you know?
Your kids are in preschool,
they’re learning a new song already,
and in high school the students
are again training on the field,
winds of sunset
howl on the balcony
the songs of autumn,
and Mom secretly waits
that maybe a letter will arrive.

 

My young brother Yehudah,
do you hear?
do you know?
All your good friends
carry your image with them,
and in all the tanks on the border lines
you are with them.
My good brother,
I remember your eyes,
and they solve riddles.
And my baby son is handsome like you,
I will name him in your name, Yehudah.

Although it felt strange at first to be hearing music on this sad day, the cool, desert air soon was filled with the feeling of love. The feeling of loss. The feeling of sadness. The feeling of hope. The feeling of Israel.

The next day, the streets of Jerusalem were empty. People stayed home watching stories on TV about our fallen heroes. Children, however, have school. It is a half-day where they are taught about the sacrifices and losses that we, as a people, have suffered and the joy of our independence in the Land of Israel.

Because I don’t really read the weekly emails my daughter’s school sends out, I almost missed one of the most incredible events of the year – the joint Yom Hazikaron/Yom Ha’atzmaut ceremony on the school grounds.  Luckily, my wife got a phone call and we rushed to the school and made it on time.

For two hours, this elementary school sat in complete silence watching a show put together by the 6th graders, where songs were sang, the memories of former students of the elementary school who had been killed in action were honored, prayers were said, tears were shed, and incredibly, the choir of this elementary school stood up and sang Yehuda by Ehud Manor. There was not a dry eye in the house.  I was particularly lucky to have my parents and in-laws visiting, so they could all experience this incredible peek into Israeli society with us.

This is Israel. Punches were not pulled for these children, as they may be in other countries. My seven year old daughter understood the fact that we were mourning the losses of Israeli soldiers who were killed defending our Jewish Homeland.  This was not some foreign place, or some story she was reading.  She knows that her uncle and cousin are in the Israeli army right now, and that her best friend has SEVEN uncles in the army.  She stood at the memorial of the former students of the school who had been killed defending the State.  None of this was lost on her, or any of the kids sitting on this basketball court in Jerusalem. This was clear when the memorial siren rang.  Every child stood in complete respect and silence – including my seven year old daughter. She is part of this family.

Then, the national anthem, Hatikva, started playing. Everyone sang with more emotion than usual. More pride. More tears. More context.  The words meant more than ever.  As the anthem says: Our hope of two-thousand years, to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem, will not be lost.  In fact, it is exactly because we did not lose this hope that two-thousand years after the Kingdom of David and Salomon fell, we were able to become “free people in our land” – free from the rule of others, including the British, Ottomans, Romans, Greeks, and Persians.  But, this freedom did not come without a price. We cannot forget that 23,169 people have died defending our People since 1948.

Without understanding the price that we paid to obtain this freedom, it would be unjust to celebrate our Independence.

Then, the party began. The streets of Jerusalem filled up with people as the sun set and Yom Ha’aztmaut began.  Stages were set up all over the city, DJs, live music, celebrations, happiness. City center was filled with tourists and teenagers mostly, all of whom were dancing, spraying shaving cream, and running up and down the streets dressed in white and blue. The main open-air market in Jerusalem, Mahane Yehuda (aka “the Shuk”), was filled with DJs, and a local crowd which danced through the night.  The city was alive. People celebrated. Others, including some in my family, went to synagogues and yeshivas that night and prayed Hallel to thank G-d for the miracle of our independence in the Land of Israel, giving us the ability to fulfill many mitzvahs in the Torah, including the mitzvah to Yishuv Haaretz to “possess the Land and dwell in it.” And then…they danced too.

The next day, we barbecued on our rooftop overlooking the beautiful city of Jerusalem with friends and family. While enjoying some good steak from the Golan, and drinking amazing wine from the Judean hills, I couldn’t help but think how lucky we are to be living in this time, where we don’t have to hope to return to Israel. We are here.

This week life has gone back to normal here in Israel. Cars are once again parking on the sidewalks, people are cutting each other off in the line at the pharmacy, and of course everyone is arguing about the best way to keep moving our State forward. All of us, however, still remember why we are here, and all of those we have lost to be here.

Am Israel Chai.