Ziona Greenwald

The Call of the Siren

In New York City, where I spent the first four decades of my life, wildly cacophonous noise is ordinary. The screech of brakes, drivers honking, ambulances wailing, the lumbering of trains crossing the bridge before heading underground again — that’s what I heard from my window every day. People walk along, enjoy the parks, go to sleep at night. Nothing, no one, ever stops.

That’s one reason I am awestruck when the siren blares here on Yom Hashoah and again on Yom Hazikaron. Even in busy Jerusalem, with its own urban orchestra, one noise rises above all the others and commands: Stop! Listen! Remember! At that moment there is only one sound; all others cease or fade. And its haunting tone cuts through my thoughts and preoccupations. I think of the beautiful souls, the lives cut short, the weight of all we have lost. Fleetingly, the siren achieves its profound yet simple purpose.

It also awakens another feeling. Only our tiny Israel could create this unique shared experience across the entire country. Unity is sorely lacking among the Jewish people, in Israel as well as in the Diaspora, and sadly some Israelis pay no heed to the siren — though I would think it must take a great deal of effort not to be moved. But they can’t escape the sound. Like the blood of the fallen, the sound permeates the land. And I, for one, feel more connected to the klal as I share those sacred moments of reflection.

The sound of the siren has enhanced my appreciation of another piercing call. We are taught that the shofar is like a cry from the heart, giving voice to our deep, innate yearning to return to G-d. It is a call so primal that it cuts through our confusion, contradictions, hesitations. For all its spiritual potential, I have often found it hard to concentrate during the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana. Distracted, hungry, evaluating the proficiency of the blower and counting off the sequence of different blasts — I admit my mind has not always been on G-d and teshuva.

Yet even my first year here post-aliyah, hearing the sirens and seeing the sudden halt, the reverence of people and cars stopping mid-path, I found it not at all difficult to tap into the intense power of the sound and focus on what it represents. The siren reminded me, on some level, of the shofar. Couldn’t — indeed, shouldn’t — the shofar have the same effect? While much less dramatic, without the incredible unity generated by the siren blaring at the same moment throughout the land, the shofar is an ancient channel for connecting to G-d. It recalls the akeyda, Avraham’s almost-sacrifice of Yitzchak, and their merits which we seek to invoke. It is a call to memory, a prayer for mercy, a proxy for our own feeble voices. Thus, Israel’s memorial sirens have helped me better connect to the power of the shofar.

I wonder what would happen if on these special days of remembrance Jewish communities around the world could somehow hear the sound of the sirens bellowing forth from Israel. Would it stir their hearts? What thoughts might it awaken? Would it help bring them home?

About the Author
Ziona Greenwald, J.D., a contributing editor for The Jewish Press, is a writer and editor and the author of two children's books, Kalman's Big Questions and Tzippi Inside/Out. She lives with her family in Jerusalem.
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