The graveyard in my heart

We celebrated Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzma’ut a few weeks ago.

Wait. Let me rephrase that. Israelis commemorated Yom HaZikaron and celebrated Yom HaAtzma’ut a few weeks ago, and some of us here in America sort of celebrated Yom HaAtzma’ut and barely remembered Yom HaZikaron. There; that’s actually more accurate.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to be critical. Whatever our feelings are for the State of Israel – from “I just signed up with Nefesh B’Nefesh and am packing my lift” to “I own an apartment in Jerusalem and go there for the holidays” to “I always go to the Israeli Day Parade” to “like my relationship, it’s complicated” to “I love the Land, not State, of Israel” — we recognize that Yom HaAtzma’ut is the independence day of a country we’re not citizens of, and therefore reserve our BBQs for July.

Nonetheless, many in the first few groups try to act a bit differently on that day, whether it’s saying Hallel during the morning prayers (and disagreeing about whether to say a bracha or not – what’s a Jewish tradition without a good debate?), saying chag sameach and in return getting back either a chag sameach or a quizzical look, or simply making sure to wear blue and white while watching an Israeli television series on Netflix in Hebrew (with English subtitles, of course). (We’re watching “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.”)

But Yom HaZikaron is different. The meaning, experience, importance, and, indeed, holiness of that day are so very personal to Israelis. Almost all have been touched in some very real way with the losses being remembered, and, sadly, have a cemetery (or in the plural for all too many) to visit. Indeed, many new olim who have not been personally affected by loss have a Yom HaZikaron custom of visiting graves of soldiers they never knew to feel more fully Israeli.

Another difficulty for Americans is not being able to experience another of Yom HaZikaron’s major traditions – the two-minute siren when Israel comes to a halt. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, you put down your food, stop your game, pause your video, suspend your conversation, shut off your phone, or brake and get out of your car, and then stand silently while the siren wails. And when the wailing stops, Israel awakens from its momentary slumber and begins to get back to normal; begins, because the feeling of loss and remembrance doesn’t dissipate in a mere two minutes, no matter how long those minutes might feel.

Many of us in America have seen this on Facebook or YouTube. Watching it is, at most, deeply moving. Across the ocean on the shores of the Mediterranean, however, it’s essential, perhaps even existential.

And yet, as in all things Jewish, even the Yom HaZikaron siren is not without controversy. Halacha has many laws and traditions about mourning and remembrance – whether shiva, aveilut rules, kaddish, or reciting the kel maleh – and, not surprisingly, the two-minute siren is not among them. And so, in certain Israeli communities, some members do not participate in that ritual, whether (wisely) making sure to be in a private area so their non-participation is not noticed and thus not offensive to those standing silently with tears in their hearts if not on their cheeks, or (unwisely) doing the opposite.

Ad kan, a pause, though I’ll return.

What do we do on our side of the Atlantic when African-Americans are shot in supermarkets and young children in classrooms? Locally, the Teaneck Interfaith Community, recognizing that evil should not be ignored and wanting to remember those who lost their lives in these horrifying shootings, recently organized a “Say Their Names” Vigil at the Teaneck Municipal Green. The vigil was precipitated by the Buffalo massacre though, sadly, touched on the later one in Uvalde as well.

The attendees were diverse – hijabs mixed with kippot (on men and women); people of all races and nationalities gathered together; there were babes in arms, college students, members of the various letter generations that I can never get straight, and those of us on Medicare. Men and women stood shoulder to shoulder or sat silently in solidarity and remembrance.

This diversity did not mean a large crowd, and attendance was sparse. Only two of the seven members of the Teaneck town council were present (our mayor, James Dunleavy, and Karen Orgen), and stood with our Congressional representative, Josh Gottheimer. And though there was a mixture of local Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Bahai clergy, some of whom spoke, as did audience members moved by the occasion, the Jewish Teaneck community, with at least 15 synagogues, was represented by only two Orthodox rabbis and our lone Conservative one, with no local yeshiva principals in attendance whom I could see. (I’m personally proud that the rabbi of my synagogue, R. Chaim Strauchler, was one of those present.)

But here too, my purpose is not to be critical. Rather, it’s to reflect on the ritual of remembering that took place that evening.

Cheryl Hall, the event chair of Teaneck Interfaith, a Black Catholic woman whom I met and have become friendly with through our mutual service on Teaneck’s advisory board on community relations, ran the program. Before it began, she handed out paper slips to many attendees with the names of those people killed in Buffalo and beyond. As she introduced the program, she explained that everyone with a slip should come forward to the mike, read the victim’s name aloud, and ask the crowd to recite it. And repeat.

I’ll be honest. Although I had taken a slip, when I heard this description I thought it was hokey. That is, until Cheryl loudly recited “Ruth Whitfield, an 86-year old grandmother; say her name” and the crowd did. “Say it again,” Cheryl instructed, and we did.

Wow. It was like a punch in the stomach. A victim became a person; a fatality became a grandmother; a casualty became a human being, created, like all individuals, in the image of God. (Genesis 1:27) And that punch repeated itself as the line of slip holders passed by the microphone and recited, and the audience repeated, name after name after name. What a magnificent way to memorialize those who deserve to be remembered as real people and not simply nameless victims of tragedy.

Hokey? Was I nuts? (Yes, but I’m capable of learning.) Indeed, I should have known better. Teaneck’s Holocaust Commemoration, held now for decades, had a segment when it was held live (a recording has been livestreamed during covid) where six candles are lit by Holocaust survivors, their children, grandchildren and, recently, great-grandchildren, while the names of attendees’ relatives who did not survive are read out loud. “The family of Joseph Kaplan, Viola Brecher and three children,” Johnny would intone. “The family of Sharon Penkower Kaplan, the Hersteins,” Arlene would chant. And on and on and on, each a punch in the stomach, each a statement that six million is not just a number but comprises six million men, women, and children; six million parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends. Putting names to an anonymous number helps us remember why it’s so important to remember.

And now back to Yom HaZikaron. No, the siren is not an established part of our tradition. Nor is the recitation of names of Holocaust martyrs. But new traditions like these and like reading names of shooting victims arise when the times call for them, and speak to us in new ways. Both the old, honed by centuries of time and oceans of tears, and the new, arising from our human ability to create and innovate, can educe sorrow and evoke memories; can inspire us and touch our souls.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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