75 years ago, Flying Officer Isaac “Bucky” Zierler, would set out to navigate his last mission above Leipzig, Germany. Just before reaching their target, he and the five Royal Canadian Airforce crew-members of his bomber took flak, blowing up their aircraft and its payload.
One month before the end of World War II, my grandfather lost his older brother and greatest hero.
The date was April 10, 1945, but the Hebrew date of the 27th of Nissan, would gain a greater significance in 1951, when the Israeli government declared that date as Holocaust Memorial Day.
43 years and a day after Bucky fell, my parents had little debate as to what to name their firstborn son. Eight days later, as Israel celebrated its 40th birthday, my parents ushered me into the covenant of Abraham and firmly placed the mantle of my great-uncle’s legacy onto my shoulders. Although my friends know me as Yoni, it is Bucky’s “Yitzchak” that precedes my “Yonatan.”
The date of my birth ensured that the quintessential Israeli concept of “m’evel l’yom tov” (moving from mourning to joy) was something ingrained in me from an early age.
In Hebrew, the 28th of Nissan is represented by the numerical value of letters “kaf” and “chet.” Together, these letters spell “koach”,strength. For my family it was the strength gained when one soul took up the call of another, when memory entwined with life to create a new story. Every year kaddish and yartzheit memorial candles transitioned smoothly to birthday wishes, cake, and candles.
Shortly after blowing out 20 of those candles (one for good luck), I boarded an El-Al plane to officially make Aliyah and join the IDF – becoming the first member of my family to enlist in defense of the Jewish people since Uncle Bucky.
Over the years, both my Zeidie (grandfather) and my father took care to fill in various biographical details. He was an award-winning athlete who had a way with women, which gave Anti-Semites another reason to dislike him. To defend himself he began boxing, and at some point in the ring took a punch that shattered his nose. The injury could have kept him from flying and even from military service, but Bucky opted for surgery so that he could join the fight against Hitler.
Though I was not the smooth athlete that he was and opted for infantry instead of air-force, Bucky’s legend joined me throughout my service. He was on every hike and march and stood next to me at my beret ceremonies and graduations. He sat with my fellow non-commissioned officer trainees on Holocaust Memorial Day and answered “Amen” as I recited the El Maleh Rachamim memorial prayer for him and our brethren who perished throughout the world. The lessons of his 23 years pushed me forward during challenging moments so that I could experience moments of achievement and celebration.
I know that I am not alone in having felt the support of one who is no longer with us during such moments. Moving from “evel l’yom tov” is part and parcel with the Israeli mindset and reality. We have, too often, found ourselves trading in the shrouds of mourning for dancing shoes, as we travel from day-time funerals to night-time weddings. Just as under the chuppah of those weddings the bridegroom breaks a glass in memory of ancient Jerusalem’s destruction, no Israeli celebration is complete without pausing to remember – or perhaps invite – their fallen friends and family to join in the celebration.
The lives they led inspire and allow us to raise each other up and revel in the beauty of our own lives.
As Israel’s “Days of Awe” approach, I find myself challenged by the new limitations on “evel,” mourning and memorializing. Covid-19 has cancelled a long-awaited family trip to finally pay respects to Bucky on his 75th anniversary, and I, like many (if not all) Israelis, now face the realization that both Yom HaShoa and Yom HaZikaron will be held with our loved ones in our hearts, but not by their side.
For many of us, not being able to experience the dissonance of feelings in full this year will be a dissonance in and of itself. There is little that can brighten this thought.
And yet, I feel strong hands on my shoulders and a familiar voice telling me to keep marching, stay strong. Keep the stories alive by writing them down for the world to read and sending them beyond the finite borders of physical pilgrimage sites. Open up the sphere of memory and share your feelings with others who are looking to do the same and create a broad space for everyone to virtually hold hands, cry together, and laugh together.
Soon enough, just as our mourning transitions to joy, we too will move on from this frustrating state of dissonance. From distancing and restrictions to connection and celebration. Together.