When I was growing up in the States, there was one thing that every barbecue grill, no matter how cheap, had — a way of adjusting how close, or far, your food was from the coals. So, I was shocked when I first moved to Israel to discover that the average ‘al ha-esh’ grill people use here has no way of adjusting it. It’s ‘all or nothing’. You either put your food very close to the hot coals or you don’t cook it at all.
As we approach Israel’s annual primary day-of-outdoor-grilling, Yom HaAtzmaut, on Wednesday, I’m thinking of how much the all-or-nothing grills reflect the fundamental character of this tiny nation that has faced so many crises in its short history. In recent weeks, Israelis have proved themselves to be pretty darn good at ‘doing nothing’ when that’s what the crisis of the moment called for. The coronavirus lockdowns have been widely observed without the level of extreme pushback seen in the States. The streets and parks have, for the most part, been empty. Businesses of all shapes and sizes have helped by shifting to home delivery to make it more practical for people to stay in their homes. The death rate has been among the lowest in the industrialized world outside of Asia.
But now it’s ending. Even though no solid virus testing regime is yet in place, most shops outside of big indoor malls will start opening this week. The streets will start to fill up again. People are supposed to still wear masks and observe social distancing restrictions, but I’m a bit worried that the all-or-nothing culture, along with the Israeli tendency to not give each other much personal space, will mean that what’s supposed to be a gradual return to our pre-virus ways will quickly become a total return (which would lead to an explosion in infections and death).
Ironically, the loosening of restrictions is coming at the same time they are being dramatically, albeit temporarily, tightened this week for Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, and, perhaps more importantly, Yom HaZikaron, which immediately precedes it. The lockdown expected to be put in place for these two days would not only prevent the traditional big outdoor barbeque celebrations of Independence Day, but would also prevent people from going to cemeteries on Yom HaZikaron, which, as my wife MInna describes it, is a kind of secular Yom Kippur here. It is a solemn day characterized by a total closing of stores and both an evening and a morning siren where people all over the country stop what they are doing and stand at attention to honor those who have been lost in Israeli’s many conflicts.
As a person whose professional life is centered around attending to people’s grief and mourning, this is the most unthinkable of the restrictions we have had to endure in our pursuit of preserving life in the face of corona. There are few more universal, basic human emotional needs than the urge to honor one’s dead. People need to do it. They especially need to do it in community. I don’t know how families who are used to being comforted by the usual large memorial ceremonies and the practice of visiting graves on this day will be able to weather it. I seriously wonder if we will see people forcibly breaking into cemeteries to observe.
We will be tested in many ways in the coming days (although, unfortunately, relatively few of these tests will be the medical ones for the actual coronavirus!). People will begin widely testing the limits that remain. Muslims, now at the beginning of their month-long Ramadan observance, will be tested by the current requirements that they not gather for their daily post-fast meal with people outside their nuclear family. We will all be tested by our urge to return to normal and resume gathering and traveling. And, soon, we will probably be tested by facing a choice about whether to send our kids back to Gan and school once those start to reopen. The tests will be especially challenging for families that, under the same roof, have both members who are at little risk from the disease and those who may be killed or permanently disabled by it. It will be up to the government to decide whether we are ‘passing’ these tests and whether the restrictions need to be reimposed to prevent a deadly second wave of the virus. I hope they will be guided by wisdom and not just political concerns amid these many challenging tests.