Last week, as I walked my 6 year-old to gan on Yom HaShoah, I reminded her that there was going to be a siren that morning. “And then I run to the mamad (the safe room), right, Ema?”
It can be confusing at times to be a little kid in this country. How do you know when to stand still and when to run?
In Israel, there are two kinds of sirens that have intense significance in our lives.
On Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and on Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), the nation stands together in silence as a stark, even, monotone siren sounds for a long two minutes. Everyone comes to a halt. The long, continuous sound always reminds me of the tekiah that we blow on Rosh Hashana. It is solemn and piercing all at once. And just like on Rosh Hashana, we know exactly when we will hear it. We stand at attention waiting for it to begin. Yet, nonetheless, it jolts us and shakes us to the core, as it focuses us on our memories, our losses and what really matters in life.
The siren that signals an incoming rocket wails up and down, alternating between a high pitch and a low one, climbing and falling in a similar fashion to the siren of an ambulance. It is alarming, fear-inducing, and attention-grabbing. It sets everyone in motion. You are never quite prepared for it even when you know to expect it. It always comes out of nowhere, is heart stopping and nerve wracking, and takes a while to calm down from. It reminds us of how quickly reality can change and of how vulnerable our lives are.
In the 8 years since our aliya to Gush Etzion, we have only a few times experienced the second type of siren. They were all during two periods of fighting with Gaza: in the fall of 2012, during Operation Pillar of Defense, and then again in the summer of 2014, during Operation Protective Edge.
My kids were little then, but old enough to take everything precious to them into the safe room “in case the house got destroyed” and old enough that their memories of those sirens and the fear and adrenaline they induce can still sometimes be triggered when they hear the similar siren of an ambulance.
The two different sirens have always been distinct in our experience. The first kind belongs to the spring. To the powerful two weeks that immediately follow Pesach and which frame the history of the modern State of Israel. The second kind was associated with fall and summer.
And now, this week, they have become intertwined. Just two days after the siren of Yom Hashoah, thousands of Israelis found themselves running to safe rooms and bomb shelters. Just a few days before the sirens of Yom Hazikaron, thousands of soldiers find themselves wondering if they will be called to fight for their country.
During this time of year, I often find myself thinking about our aliya, the decision to move here, and the day-to-day realities we sometimes encounter. Today, our 9 year-old walked in the door from school, told us he is terrified, broke down in tears, and announced that he is sleeping in the mamad. He described the very real anxiety he feels when he thinks about the rockets. And yet not he or any of our children has ever expressed a desire to leave.
They understand that there will always be things in life you are scared of. They also understand there are things in life that are worth sacrificing for. They find significance in the fact that they are part of something much greater than themselves. The sirens of Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron have a way of bonding you to your people, your history, your country.
It is not easy to hear the sirens and to think about the devastation of the Holocaust or of the human price we have paid over the 71 years of the State of Israel. It is not easy for all those hearing the wailing sirens to feel the fear and to run for safety.
I remember the innocent, carefree years of my childhood, in contrast to the things our children must sometimes face and experience. But when your life is lived in the shadow of weighty ideas, you learn to live with an awareness and an appreciation that you never knew was possible. And I would not give that up or trade it for anything.
It is not easy to feel vulnerable. It is difficult to realize every day all over again that we are not in control. This is always the case. No matter when and where we live. But sometimes we feel it more than others. And when you do, you live life with more meaning; you think about where you came from and where you are headed, what really matters and what you most want. You make deliberate choices. You even feel God’s presence more strongly.
The sirens of Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron and what they conjure up remind us of all that. We could live without the other kind.
With prayers for peace, and quiet, in Israel.