Growing up as a Jew in England, I celebrated Israel’s Independence Day annually, but I barely knew of the existence of the memorial day immediately preceding it. Over the last few years, with the spread of social media, videos showing how the entire country stops in absolute silence have gone viral. There’s something astonishing in seeing hundreds of cars come to a halt as sirens wail all over the country. In stark contrast with the barely-respected and often-curtailed minute’s silences often seen at football matches, these moments are almost immaculately observed. And then there’s this powerful clip, showing another aspect to the seriousness of the day.
But these are only superficial glimpses into the Israeli experience.
It’s my tenth year in Israel. But I’d never experienced Yom HaZikaron ‘properly’ until today.
A friend invited me to join other friends from the neighbourhood to sit together, and “sing and remember”. About 25 people, we crammed into a partly-lit room, sitting on sofas, chairs, and the floor. We started the evening by rising to stand in silence at 8pm as the thin, still sound of sirens filled the room. We settled back down. One of the hosts lit a candle and invited us to sing along as a pianist gently played poignant songs. I’ve rarely experienced music like this. Every song in a minor key, Israel has a veritable canon of mourning tunes. We sang rawly, without microphones. The words were projected onto a bare wall, and we sang along together tenderly, almost breathing the lyrics as someone lightly strummed an acoustic guitar. Together we created an atmosphere that was at once mellow and mournful, yet tinged with solidarity.
In between songs, people spoke unprompted. One woman recalled her neighbour, someone she didn’t know well but she’d see on her way back home from the synagogue on Shabbat. So many people had friends, family members, neighbours who they knew. One told how of a night that he couldn’t sleep, so he got up at 5:30am to pray in the local Bet Hamedresh (study hall/synagogue). As he was finishing, he heard noises from above. Upon exiting the building, he saw a friend sitting on the flat roof with someone else, crouched over a small “Pakal Cafe” (outdoor stove brewing coffee). “Come up and join us,” they called out. “They knew how to live life to the very edge – they didn’t let it pass them by”, he told us.
Some told of soldiers they trained and fought with. One described in detail how he was in action when an armoured personnel carrier nearby was shot with an RPG, killing people inside. He related how his unit was told to wait afterwards to “collect the parts”.
One of the hosts related how he was the cousin of one of the three Jewish boys were kidnapped, later discovered murdered, last summer. He told us also how he struck up a friendship with a female Arab student also at the Hebrew University over those awful summer weeks, and how she called him, panicked, when reservists were called up. Just as millions of Jewish Israelis were feeling, she too was worried about an Israeli soldier. He went on to tell of his emotional ordeal while serving in Gaza. He was careful with his words, but described the fight as something “personal”. I hope none of us ever have to understand what he means.
Not knowing anyone who had been killed, thank G-d, I read the memorial page of a soldier who was killed in the 1973 war. Chaim-Alter Taichman ignored his formal exemption from combat service and volunteered to be trained as a combat field medic. On 11th October 1973, while in action in the Sinai dessert, Taichamn saw his brothers-in-arms stuck without ammunition. Taichman volunteered to rush out to their aid and was strafed by air planes from above. Taichman was the only child of two Holocaust survivors.
Towards the end, a young woman spoke up. She announced that she hadn’t planned to speak but her cousin was the wife of Roi Klein. In the Second Lebanon War (2006), Klein was serving as the deputy commander of the 51st Battalion of the Golani Brigade. During one battle, a hand grenade was thrown over a wall that separated Klein and his unit from Hezbollah’s men. Realising time was short, Klein shouted “Klein’s dead, Klein’s dead” and jumped on the live grenade, absorbing the explosion with his body and thus saving the lives of his soldiers. The soldiers reported that Klein recited the Jewish prayer, Sh’ma Yisrael, in his final moments. It may seem trite, but I was reminded how at certain moments, Jews around the world feel totally connected. When something terrible happens, it’s almost like we feel a disturbance in the force. We collectively stagger and reel from the pain. The story of Roi Klein’s death sent an emotional shock wave through the entire country.
A friend of mine finished by recalling a local lad, Barkai Shor, who lived round the corner from me. He was heavily involved in the community, in numerous volunteer organisations. Barkai was killed in action during the war last summer. No doubt many others in our community are mourning him too. Speaking to my friend afterwards, she explained how Yom HaZikaron is Holy day for the entire country. A secular Yom Kippur, she called it. In a way, it reminded me of Tish’ah B’av, with the lights low and people sitting on the floor. All over the country people attended ceremonies, listened to each other, shed tears and told stories.
Years ago I thought I understood what it is to be Israel. Being Israeli is to go to the army. Over the last few years, I’ve come to realise that’s only part of the story. There’s another side. Being Israeli is also to agonise over loved ones who are in the army. Being Israeli is to fret and be nervous and cry over brothers, fathers, sisters and daughters who are in harm’s way. Being Israeli is to mourn, to remember, to see beauty in pain and to smile through tears as we sit together and share these bittersweet moments.