This blog is about a different kind of Memorial Day. In the US although many of us take time out to remember those who have given their lives in war, most of us treat MD as a festive occasion – a day off from work, a mini-vacation as part of a three-day weekend, family gatherings, barbecues, or a day at the beach. In addition, Memorial Day is considered the unofficial start of summer.
Not so in Israel. In Israel MD is treated as a solemn occasion. It honors the memory of the approximately 23,000 soldiers who have died in service of Israel beginning in 1860, well before Israel was even a country. It used to be celebrated in conjunction with Independence Day, but many felt that the solemn remembrance of fallen soldiers merited its own day separate and distinct from the festive nature of Independence Day. So, in 1951 MD was established to be celebrated on the day before Independence Day. This year it is being celebrated on April 22.
The basic manner of observance is as follows:
- MD begins at 8:00 pm the preceding evening (April 21 this year) with a one-minute siren blast that can be heard all over the country.
- During the siren blast all activity ceases. Even drivers stop their vehicles wherever they may be (good for traffic congestion), and Israelis stand in a moment of silence.
- Religious Jews pray for the souls of the fallen.
- There is a ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
- Flags are lowered to half-staff.
- At precisely 11:00 am the following morning (April 22 this year) a two-minute siren is sounded, which signals the commencement of memorial ceremonies at every cemetery at which soldiers are buried.
- It is customary for mourners to visit gravesites of their loved ones during the day.
- Throughout the day, one of the government-owned tv stations shows the names, ranks, and dates of death (both secular and Hebrew) of all the fallen in chronological order.
- The day ends at 8:00 pm with the official ceremony marking Israeli Independence Day at the national military cemetery at Mount Herzl.
- At that time, the flag is returned to full staff.
As a side note, yesterday, the New York Times published a poignant story about a deceased Israeli soldier named Gil’ad, who perished in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. While it is customary for relatives, friends and acquaintances to name their children after deceased soldiers this one soldier has had 23 babies on three continents, both male and female, named for him. (The name, Gil’ad refers to a biblical mountain range.) Each year many of them and their families journey to Israel to attend a special memorial hosted by Gil’ad’s mother.
How did this happen? According to Gil’ad’s mother, soon after his death was confirmed an acquaintance called from the hospital where she had just given birth and asked if it would be okay to name her son “Gilad?” She said “yes,” and that was the beginning. Over the next 40 years many other babies have been named “Gil’ad or Gilad. In some cases, one or more of the parents didn’t even know of the original Gil’ad.
To us in the US, April 22, 2015 is just another day. But, if you’re Jewish or a supporter of Israel, I suggest you stop for a minute and reflect on those 23,000 soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for Israel and, by extension, for Jews all over the world.