Last night, after I lit the memorial candle for our friend and neighbor, Ari Fuld, that we, like all the families in our tiny, growing town, received from the local council, I went out on our mirpeset (back porch) to hang the string of flags they had given out with the candle. The council gave every family candles with names of those who had lived in our town, and died for our country, whether as soldiers or victims of terror. Ari was a friend and neighbor, a husband and father, a teacher and soldier, and a speaker who traveled the world talking about Israel and trying to help people, both Jews and non-Jews, just trying to improve the world. He fought till his last breath to protect all those around him, and he loved his country deeply. He showed countless people a positive role model by being a Jew, an Israeli, and an Israeli warrior.
The night was still, not a breeze blowing, although it often is where we live. It seemed appropriate that the flags would be down, at half mast, as it was the start of Yom Hazikaron, the day we remember Israel’s fallen soldiers and those who were killed by terror attacks just for living in Israel.
I thought then of other nights. I thought of the midnight funeral for Ari that lasted until past 3am, with so many people you could not see the cemetary hillside. I thought of the early fall night I went to Shiva in the Goldstein family garden for Gilad, the last night of June when we all gathered as a community to cry after we finally heard that Eyal, Gil-ad, and Naftali had been found, but would only be returned to their people to rest together forever. I thought of the December night I went to a work meeting, so scared because I had no way to get home and would have to try to get a ride at the bus stop where Dalya was brutally murdered only weeks before. These were places I had been, sorrows I shared. There were other nights, and days that turned into night just by the darkness of their events, like the Friday night meant to be a restful Shabbat night when almost the entire Fogel family was killed, and the day in the park when the light of Ori was brutally put out. There was the night the peace of a library was forever shattered by the screaming of bullets, when my friend lost her son, Avraham David, and 7 others lost their lives. There have been just too many nights, there are too many names and stories. More names echo in my head- Rav Yakov Don and Ezra Schwartz, Dafna Meir, Eliyav Gelman, little Shalhevet Pass, Koby Mandel, my friend Sara Duker- has it been 25 years? So many names I know, so many I don’t, but someone else does. Our count is 23, 816 fallen soldiers, 3,153 victims of terror.
Last week, for Yom Hashoa, I asked my students how they would explain the unimaginable number 6 million. Some said that the collection projects, where students bring in 6 million buttons or pins, so the sheer number can be seen and touched, can help people understand. Some said that it is better to tell the individual stories, to understand more deeply and personally what we lost. I have lost family I don’t even know, can’t name. I lost my grandfather in Siberia, and have no kever to visit. Today I find I can’t even conceive of how to hold over twenty-six thousand names, lost people, in my head. But I can understand the pain of being separated from loved ones, and being unable to at least go visit the kever, the last resting place for those you lost.
Many of these thoughts were going through my head all night until I started writing this in the dark of early morning, but I could not finish gathering my scattered thoughts then. We just heard the second siren, the morning siren for the nation’s fallen. I felt blessed to be standing in my home with my son, who recently finished his army service. Only two years ago he proudly served on guard duty on Yom Haatzmaut. He stood straight, at parade rest, during the siren. We had the tv on to the national ceremony on Har Herzl, which, in years past, was usually packed with the families of those who have given all to this country, to our people. Today the attendance was scant, only some soldiers and officials, all in masks, standing at Har Herzl. Last night’s ceremony at the Kotel, the symbol of the Jewish people for thousands of years, was also sadly empty. We watched as four planes flew by on the televised ceremony, in the missing man formation. Many families today feel that emptiness, know who is missing for them, and had the additional pain of not being able to go see them, to visit their graves. To acknowledge this, to alleviate this pain in some way, in addition to giving out candles, our council had some young volunteers in masks, with flags, go to stand outside homes for those who lost someone to war, to terror, someone who risked their lives just by living here, to show the families that they are not mourning and remembering alone.
In a clip I saw last night with Nachshon Wachsman’s mother, she said that after he was kidnapped and killed, she was asked over and over, does she regret moving to Israel, making Aliyah, since this was the result. Her answer was a definitive no, that this is her home and her place. As I watched this I remembered how I wanted to make Aliyah, to come home, all my life, since I was eight years old and we were here for the summer. I took trips to Israel and learned for the year, and the desire to live here stayed with me. Then I remember the visit later on, when our firstborn, my baby, was just 9 months old. For the first time in my life, I realized that coming here would mean that he would be in the army, and temporarily, I put moving to Israel in the back of my mind. Then, after 9/11, I remembered a vital lesson learned earlier: we are not in control. We can live anywhere, but it is not up to us for how long, only how we live. So we made our plans and arrived here, 13 and a half years ago. For our “bar mitzvah” year, just a few months ago, we got the present of having that same baby complete his army service safely. Then, in the blink of an eye, we had another child to worry about. Our middle child has been working in a hospital for the past two years. He did not go to the army but volunteered for National Service, in a hospital. For a while we thought that at least this was a “safe” place to be, but suddenly, he is on front lines of a different kind. As I write this, he is working there, helping the sick. In normal circumstances this seems like a safe job, but as we know, this present time is anything but normal.
The day is winding down as I try to gather the rest of my thoughts. I stopped writing to go pick up my medic, and do something as normal as a take quick trip to the local makolet (mini-market) with my husband. But nothing is normal…we had to go before 5 today because that is when, once more, instead of tonight’s expected holiday where family and friends who have not seen each other because of life’s usual hectic pace would have gathered, we will be on lockdown, kept apart by law, for everyone’s safety. Instead of going tonight as in other years to join our growing town in the biggest community celebration of the year, we will, because we care about each other, stay home, and participate from our living rooms. Tonight Israel will celebrate the Hebrew date of our Declaration of a State, 72 years and counting.
Living here has been a dream, even when it has been difficult. One of my middle of the night thoughts, and what I usually ponder as this time of year approaches, is the juxtaposition of Yom Hazikaron, the day we remember fallen Israeli soldiers—which has since expanded to include those who were killed by terrorists for just being in Israel, Jews and non-Jews alike –and how the day of mourning ends by giving birth to Independence Day. In America, Memorial Day and Independence Day are over a month apart, as if one had no connection to the other. But here, just as Passover, our holiday of Freedom and Nationhood ends, you start to see Israeli flags sprouting everywhere. And even though in this time period we also mourn both ancient losses, as well as more recent- first with Yom Hashoah, and a week later Yom Hazikaron – the flags continue to fly high. We do not ignore the sadness, but incorporate it into our celebrations, because we are a people who give credit, who give thanks. Our very name, Jew, stems from Yehuda- L’hodiya- which means to be thankful for that which we have been given. So it is only right that we fly our flags as we mourn 6 million lost to the Holocaust, because it was from those ashes that the State of Israel rose. And it is right that we are sad and mourn together on Yom Hazikaron, before we can celebrate Yom Haatzmaut. Those who grieve family are joined by those who have not, but are mishtatef b’tzaar- with them in their sadness- because it is by the blood of those who have and continue to give everything that we continue as a State, a Nation, a People. On this note of thankfulness, this year’s Israeli flags on the main highway were interspersed with those with a red star, symbolizing Magen David Adom, to indicate support and appreciation for all that the medical community has and continues to do for our people. I am proud to he a part of that in some way as well.
This week’s assignment to my students was to say what it means to them to be an Israeli. Yes, Jewish people all over the world are tragically being attacked and murdered for that all the time. But those who live here, who visit, who say we are here and will not leave, and those who have died to say that, that is who we mourn and celebrate at this time, in this place. What it means to me to be an Israeli is to stick together even when apart, to stand up in the face of terrible odds and try again and again and again. It means raising your children in a place where, when they have grown up and understand the sacrifice you may have been choosing for them, they say, there is no other place where they would have wanted to be raised. It means that even when you think you are not on the front lines, you are. And if you have to give more than you thought in order to keep the whole going, you do.
There is a beautiful and achingly sad website where you can say tehillim for the fallen. This site started through the initiative, as I understand it, of the ultra-orthodox community, some of whom don’t send their children to be soldiers, feeling that their learning is their part in the fight. They wanted to show solidarity, to say they live here too, they remember. As we know, terrorists don’t single out Modern Orthodox or non-religious Jews, and in their zeal, have killed non-Jews in Israel as well, just for being here. On another website, that I started looking through last night, you can read the personal stories and light a virtual candle. There was too much, too many, and I had to stop looking at these beautiful faces, the people who gave everything for our country.
This virus, this pandemic that has forced us apart, has also brought us closer. There have been so many stories of what people are doing for each other so many ways of helping- and the fact that even when it has been hard, the majority followed the rules, if not for themselves then for others. We don’t know where this will end, but I know one thing- though all of this, I am where I wanted to be for so many years, where The Hope of the Jewish People brought us after thousands of years. Last night and today, we sang Hatikva with sadness. Tonight, even from our homes and apart, we will sing Hatikva together, with pride and strength and hope.
As I finish, the wind rises, and the flags are flying tall again. My celebration is just being here, whatever may come. I have said it before, but I will say it again:
I am Home.