Being a Jew in Israel this time of year is tough. It’s moody, and it’s personal. I’ve gone from being incredibly, deeply depressed to incredibly joyous and hopeful. Within a few minutes.
Last Sunday night and Monday was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a regular work day. But it’s not. Restaurants and entertainment venues were closed on Sunday night. Things were open on Monday. It’s business as usual. But it’s not. Ceremonies take place. Prayers are said. Television stations run testimonials, movies, discussions. Personal witnesses, now old, remember. The memory pervades.
The contrast to the Jews’ situation today is vivid. In between the memorials, the programs, the constant reminders, my thoughts kept turning to this: It would not happen today. Jews today have restored our homeland. We have threats. We have problems. But we have a nation. We have an army, and a navy, and an air force, dedicated to one thing: keeping us safe. Protecting us.
And, whether they like it or not, our nation, and our military, keeps all Jews safe. Not just because it guarantees a place of refuge, but because it has changed the perception of Jews in the world. Talk to a Jew who was alive prior to the birth of Israel.
As the day goes on and evening comes close, you can feel some of the sadness start to fade away, slowly. In anticipation of the upcoming holidays, flags and banners start to appear on balconies and on cars. The mood begins to change. But we still remember. The feeling and the memory overlays the next week’s events.
On Wednesday my wife and I took a drive down to Mitzpe Ramon. Two and a half hours down, two and a half hours back. A long day. It was worth it.
When my brother-in-law came to Israel for the first time at the age of 15, the program he was on placed him for a weekend of home hospitality with Shimon and Cipi and their four young children. Forty years later our families are very close. My wife and I are invited to every holiday get-together and to every family simcha.
As a baby in Poland, Cipi’s family knew what was coming and they worked with a priest to place her with a Polish Catholic family. Until she was six or seven, she thought she was a Polish Catholic peasant girl. She arrived in Israel with a cross around her neck and was raised in an orphanage.
Shimon was raised in Haifa. He was an educator and, in retirement, developed a museum about old Haifa. He lectures and organizes programs about the pre-state resistance around Haifa. When we are in Haifa we go with him to the same humus place run by an Egyptian Muslim family that he has been going to for 50 years. It is like going to Cheers with Norm.
All of the kids and grandchildren have served or are serving in the military, some in interesting areas like intelligence and drones. They have four children and about 13 or so grandchildren. As Cipi likes to say, “I beat Hitler.”
One of the granddaughters, Moran, is an instructor for pilots of drones. Now she is becoming an officer, and we were attending a ceremony marking the conclusion of the officers’ course.
700 young people in the ceremony. Thousands of their family members, friends, and fellow soldiers. Sabras, olim, Ashkenazi, Sephardim, black, white, Druze, Christian, Jew.
As I looked around at the soon-to-be officers, and at all of the other soldiers attending, I kept thinking: These kids are so young looking; these officers and commanders, who will make life and death decisions for their fellow soldiers and for all of us; these leaders, many of whom will put their own lives in danger, are kids. In the U.S., they would be juniors or seniors in college. They would be studying for exams, thinking about grad school or careers, planning next weekend’s escapades.
It was a joyous, hopeful, fun day. In Israeli style, it was not solemn. The crowd clapped in unison to the marching band. After the ceremonies, the tables went up, the blankets went down, and, of course, the food came out. Atara, Moran’s mother, had brought enough. . . .well, for an army. Food for the family. Food for us. Food for Moran’s friends. Food for soldiers they did not know, but who were alone and who ate and smiled in appreciation. Food to take home.
Back to Jerusalem and a Thursday morning Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel. The grandson of friends from the U.S. The family chose to mark the milestone in Israel. Hundreds of other Bar Mitzvahs occurring at the same time. Visitors, sabras, olim, Ashkenazi, Sephardim, black, white, you name it. Smiling sabas and saftas. Mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, old ladies with deep wrinkles, throwing candies and singing cries of joy–ululation (In Hebrew, “tsahalulim”).
Young, nervous, proud faces. Joy and hope and youth.
Millions more would have experienced these simchas (happy events) but for the Shoah we marked less than a week ago. I could not help thinking what would have been had we had a country 75 years ago.
Last night (Sunday night): Yom Hazikaron. Israel’s Remembrance Day. It’s tough, and it’s personal. We attended an English language ceremony at Ammunition Hill put on by the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin. Ammunition Hill was the site of a crucial, deadly 1967 battle that opened the way for Israel’s recapture of the Old City. The Lone Soldier Center is an organization that provides support and some of the basics to the thousands of young people who come to Israel without family to volunteer in the IDF.
Some serve and go back home. Some stay in their homeland. None need to come. They leave good colleges, scholarships, good jobs.
They are drawn to serve and to defend the Jewish homeland.
The ceremony was beautiful. The speeches were heart wrenching and inspiring: The sister of Michael Levin, the young American for whom the Center is named and who envisioned a place where lone soldiers might receive some of the support that a family provides. In 2006, at the start of the Second Lebanon War, he rushed back from Pennsylvania, where he was visiting his family on leave, to join his Paratroopers Brigade. He was killed in the first round of fighting.
The sister of Shlomo Rindenow, from New Jersey, who died just last July in a tragic hand grenade accident at the entrance to the Druze town of Majdal Shams near Mt. Hermon in the Golan.
A soldier, now a doctor, under the command of Alex Singer, who died in Lebanon in 1987, and whose parents, not wanting another stone memorial, published a book of his letters and writings (Alex: Building a Life: The Story of an American who Fell Defending Israel), and who founded the Alex Singer Project to do deeds inspired by his memory.
The memories were personal, sometimes raw, sometimes difficult, inspiring, and, at the end, hopeful.
Today, Remembrance Day, is a regular business day. Except it is anything but regular. As I drove to a physical therapy appointment, memorial music playing on my radio and on the radios of the cars next to me at the stoplight, flags fluttering from cars and from light posts, barriers being erected for ceremonies, I noticed lines of cars, police men and women directing traffic. Hundreds, maybe thousands of cars, lined up in special lanes.
Then I realized where they were going: Mt. Herzl, where the country’s revered founders and leaders are buried: Herzl, Golda, Rabin, scores of others. And where thousands of 18, 19, 20, 21 year olds are buried. All of these cars going to ceremonies. People going to sit by graves, going to cry. Far too many cars. Far too many parents.
I went onto physical therapy. Yael [I’ve changed the name to protect her privacy] works for my therapist, making appointments, billing patients. A beautiful woman whose head coverings always matches her make-up and clothing, who always greets you with a smile and good conversation.
Yael has mentioned a son and daughters. Never a hint of hurt or loss. My therapist mentioned that he was surprised that Yael had come to work today. Her daughter had died in the Army 18 years ago. I was torn. Do I say something? What do I say? How can I ignore it? Pay the bill, make the next appointment, and go? Without a word? Just the usual chitchat?
While I paid, I said that the therapist had told me that she had lost a daughter in the Army. Yes, she said, head shaking. She seemed to need to explain: “I can’t stay home. It is easier to come to work.” Head shaking. Me: “I am sure she was a beautiful young woman. I need to make an appointment for next week.” Yael: “Beautiful, and smart, and thoughtful. Monday, 10:00 a.m.?” Tears welling in both our eyes. “Good. See you next week.” “See you then.”
All day today there are ceremonies. Memorial songs on the radio. Programs dedicated to soldiers, to the country, to memory.
But people are starting to prepare food. Barbecues and charcoal have been bought. This evening there will be transition services. Then, Independence Day. The transition is quick. Too quick for many. But the celebrations will take over the mood. The drinks will flow. The music will blare everywhere.
Years ago old-time Israeli dancing had become passe’. Not anymore. Thousands will dance the old dances and new variations through the night at Safra Square (the municipal center). Tomorrow the air will be thick from smoke from the barbecues at Gan Sacher (Sacher Park).
We will celebrate. The hope and joy will be everywhere, and will permeate the atmosphere. But it is interwoven with the sadness, the memory, of those who perished because there was no Israel and because the world could not be bothered.
And it will be interwoven, overlaid by the poignant, the personal, the immediate memory of the thousands of young, hopeful, fresh lives that were lost for this little splinter of a country. A free, independent Jewish country after 2,000 years. A country that protects all Jews. Everywhere.