Before I made Aliyah, I always commemorated Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut in London, but now that I’ve experienced them as an Olah here in Israel, well… they almost feel like completely different days.
On Sunday afternoon before Yom Hashoah, as the shops began to close, the mood became more serious, everything was quieter – you could see the difference: there was a lot less talking, and a lot more thinking. It was strange, it felt like a fast day without the fasting. On fasts I usually count down the minutes until I can eat again – on Yom Hashoah (and a week later on Yom Hazikaron), I felt like I shouldn’t eat.
On Yom Hashoah, the moment that really hit me was right there in Ulpan, in the Holocaust memorial ceremony we held. Our Olim from literally all over the world lined up to light candles in memory of their relatives – also from all over the world – who’d been killed in the Holocaust; each reading out the names of these innocent men, women, and children, all murdered in cold blood for no reason other than the fact that they were Jewish. We hear the number 6 million all the time, and I still don’t even know what that means. How? How could it happen? 6 million were killed. 6,000,000 worlds were destroyed.
And that morning in Ulpan their descendants, from Poland to Australia to America, lit candles, and reminded us: it really happened.
One week later was Yom Hazikaron, to remember the fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of terror. As well as the main ceremonies there are also local ones in all the neighbourhoods, where people from the area who have been affected by the loss of a loved one, whether as a soldier or in a terror attack, could say a few words or a prayer in their memory. Singing Hatikvah that night, I really thought again about what the words mean, about our hope to be a free nation in our land. Free, without our soldiers being in danger, and without the risk of terror.
At Kikar Safra thousands of people filled the square for a free “concert”, a few rows of chairs at the back but most sitting on the floor. They were subdued songs with an atmosphere to match, painful but also somehow comforting, respectful and quiet – so quiet that it couldn’t even be heard from the street, even though the audience sang together as well. I have never been to a concert like it.
On the morning of Yom Hazikaron, our Ulpan went to a ceremony at the high school nearby. Soldiers who had previously attended the school were there; the final-year students about to enlist paid tribute to all ex-pupils of the school who had died in the army or in terror attacks, including one boy who died in the army just last year. His parents watched from the audience as his friends sang a song that they wrote for him, and his best friend spoke about all the things he would miss, all the kind and funny things that his friend would no longer say or do.
Listening to the radio that day, the tone was the same on every station. Either sad music, or people discussing their experiences with terror attacks. The whole day felt very heavy, in everything and every place there were reminders of loss and grief.
That night I went to prayers that led from Yom Hazikaron into Yom Haatzmaut. We were singing an uplifting tune while I was still in Yom Hazikaron, still thinking about all the innocent people who had died, young soldiers with promising futures who fell. I felt guilty that we were singing happy tunes, but grateful that it is thanks to them that we have a Yom Haatzmaut to celebrate, that is what they fought for; and then happy and proud to be standing in a square in Jerusalem, praying and singing and watching the other young Jews dancing, wearing their Israeli flags and getting passers-by to join in.
Every kind of Israeli was out on the street celebrating. A Breslov van blaring music, young Israeli boys dancing on its roof as they do; Ben Yehuda was one huge techno-Mizrachi music party, and just walking down Rechov Yafo was like being in a parade. Amazingly the train was still running, but with police cars in front to get people off the tracks, and a warden walking next to it, literally pushing people out of the way as the train would go past, which would then get sprayed all over with foam in Magen David shapes.
At Kikar Safra they played classic Israeli songs, which everyone could dance to (or copy the people on stage demonstrating). Thousands of Israelis joined up to make different dance circles, with, of course, a women-only section to one side so the more religious women could join in too. It was like the biggest Jewish wedding you’d ever been to.
Those three days were, to me, just like Jewish holidays. They go by the Hebrew calendar, where they begin at sunset and continue until the next evening. When they are due to begin Saturday night they are postponed to Sunday, to prevent people from breaking Shabbat in preparation.
Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron felt like they should be fast days, shops and businesses closed, the heavy, subdued atmosphere everywhere, impossible not to feel.
Yom Haatzmaut was like Purim, the costumes were all blue and white but the mood was similar, joy and relief; a party atmosphere only not crazy, not drunk, but well aware of what we are honoured to be celebrating, everyone wishing each other Chag Sameach. And in every ceremony or concert – Jewish songs, not just Israeli; Tehillim and prayers.