A Study in Contrasts

Living in the United States,we always looked forward to Memorial Day with great anticipation. It’s a day off from school or work, the unofficial beginning of summer. The first beach day, the day to municipal pool opens for the season. Everyone makes plans for a big BBQ, a day for fun with family and friends. And the sales!  The newspapers are packed for weeks with ads for sales on everything from clothing and shoes to grills and furniture. What a great, fun day! Oh yes, there is the memorial at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, shown on TV as a somber moment between baseball games or movies. There are parades, but the number of participants and viewers slowly dwindles. Those families who lost loved ones in the armed forces continue to remember, but the percentage of people participating in Memorial Day observances is tiny.

Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day for the soldiers and victims of terror, began Tuesday night in Israel.  Early that afternoon, the TV stations stopped all broadcasts. The only thing to see was a picture of a rose slowly dropping its petals and the words Yom HaZikaron. Yesterday, the TV broadcasts consisted of specials about the armed forces, interviews with the families of those we lost and documentaries about the wars we fought.  All entertainment venues — restaurants, cafes, malls and movies closed early, with some remaining closed throughout the day yesterday.  Memorial programs were held Tuesday night in almost every city and town in the country.  And the people came — throngs of people.  Young and old, religious and secular, born in Israel and olim.  People of every color and shape made their way somberly to the ceremonies.

In our city of Modi’in, the ceremony began at 8 pm, with the wail of a siren — the same sound heard throughout the country.  A moment of silence — total, absolute silence — as we bowed our heads as one and remembered those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Poems, music and dance performed by the youth groups in the city expressed our collective sadness. In a country known for its noisiness and laughter, there was quiet throughout the whole ceremony. Not a cell phone rang, not a voice was heard.

Israel is only 68 years old, and already more than 23,000 of it’s citizens have fallen prey to war and terrorism.  And everyone here knows one of them. A brother, sister, cousin or friend.  In a country the size of Israel, everyone has lost someone. And everyone shares the pain. The feeling of loss and sadness continued throughout the day.  The siren cried again in morning, and the world stopped.  Drivers stopped and everyone got out to stand in the roads and highways.  Schoolchildren, from nursery school through high school, stood at attention.  Shoppers in the grocery store stood still, and everyone shared the pain.  We are broken-hearted as the terror continues.  At the same time we were remembering these holy souls, a bomb was detonated by terrorists, seriously injuring an officer of the Israeli army.

This is not to say that Israel does not celebrate.  There’s nothing Israelis love more than a chance to have a party!  Last night, as the sun set, Yom HaZikaron came to an end and Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence Day began.  Again crowds — even larger than the night before — descended on the same amphitheater where 24 hours ago we shed tears.  But these crowds were laughing and singing. The change in mood was palpable and jarring. From mourning to rejoicing in a split second.  But this is the secret to Israel — the ability to go on with life in the face of neighbors who distribute candy to their children when terrorists kill us and in a world where few countries are our friends. In place of the memorial candle there were fireworks. And we celebrated.  We celebrated with music and dancing, with performances by our children as we honored our city, turning 20 this year.  We celebrated Israel’s science and technology, culture and history and looked toward a bright future.

Today, a thick haze and the smell of the “mangal” — the Israeli barbecue — hung in the air throughout Israel as we continued to celebrate our 68th birthday with family and friends. But in the celebration there is, in the back of our minds, the memory of those who died so that we could be here today.  Israel purposely put Memorial Day right before Independence Day so that we would always have the connection between those who came before, and made the ultimate sacrifice, and the life we have in a free Israel.  Just as we break a glass at a wedding to remember the destruction of the Temple, so we have Yom HaZikaron to remember the brave soldiers who gave their lives to give us ours.

May we not have to add more names to those we memorialize on Yom HaZikaron, and may we celebrate many more of Israel’s birthdays in peace.

About the Author
Ellen Shemesh made Aliyah from North Miami Beach, FL with her family in 2014. She currently resides in Modiin.