“Would you and your granddaughter like to light the final candle at the Yom HaZicharon ceremony? The candle that symbolizes hope for a peaceful future?”
The dedicated organizer of our communal Yom HaZicharon ceremony posed that question to me months ago. After getting the okay from our granddaughter’s parents, I accepted the invitation. I was grateful to have a role in the ceremony that honors Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror. But what moved me the most was that I’d light the candle with a grandchild.
Our family is intentional about raising the next generation with ahavat Yisrael. Taking part in Yom HaZicharon seemed like a natural next step. However, I am keenly aware that we participate at a kind of remove. We have not lost loved ones in Israel’s many wars. We can honor the fallen, do our best to empathize with their grief-stricken survivors. But we cannot know what they feel.
This child, our oldest granddaughter, is finishing kindergarten. She has a general idea of what soldiers do to protect us. She knows that sometimes soldiers are injured, sometimes they die. She must be learning about Memorial Day at school, since she knows about our day to honor the memory of American soldiers. It makes sense to her that Israel would also have such a day.
On the way to the ceremony we talked about lighting the candle together, the candle symbolizing a peaceful future.
This child loves her synagogue, eagerly participates in services, feels right at home on the bima. She was thrilled to see her name taped to a seat near the front of the sanctuary.
The program began. It was as poignant and heartrending as any I’ve attended. Each speaker had a personal connection to a soldier who perished in one of Israel’s wars. They spoke, often through tears, of the magnificent person they lost. A photo of their loved one, so alive, so vibrant, appeared on a big screen on the bima.
“How old was he when he died?” my granddaughter asked me.
“Twenty,” I replied.
She was thoughtful.
“Twenty is a grown-up,’ she said, then added, “but a very young grown-up.”
By the time she asked the age of third fallen soldier, her face flushed and solemn, I decided it was time to take a break. This was too intense for a five-year-old.
We headed to the lobby. We occupied ourselves by looking in all the gift shop windows and deciding which kippah each member of the family would like. With so many aunts, uncles, and first cousins, this kept us busy for awhile. Then we perused the mezuzot with the same loved ones in mind. Then the candlesticks. And so on.
While we chatted away with our pretend shopping list, I listened carefully with one ear to the faint sounds of the service. I heard more soldiers and victims of terror remembered. A hazzan chanted El Maleh Rachamim with such pathos, such palpable grief, it could have wrung tears from a stone. Kaddish followed.
When I heard the first notes of ‘Milchama HaAchronah” (The Last War), we returned to the sanctuary. Everyone sang the chorus together: ‘I promise you, my little girl, this will be the last war.”
After that song, my little girl and I rose to light the final candle.
Then we all sang Hatikvah, which my granddaughter knows by heart, and the service was over.
Many people stopped to smile at my granddaughter, to tell her she did a great job.
On the way home she asked: “Nanny, why did people say I did a great job? You lit the candle. I just stood next to you.”
To which I replied, “We already talked about how that candle is a symbol of a good future, a future without war. When people see YOU, a little five-year-old girl, they see another symbol of the future. Seeing you gives people hope. Seeing you helps people believe that beautiful things are ahead. That is why they said you did a good job.”
I’ve been thinking about this experience off and on since Tuesday. It underscores an important difference between being a Jewish child in Israel and being a Jewish child in the US.
When I sensed that the Yom HaZicharon service was more than a five-year-old could handle, we simply went to the lobby.
Where is the ‘lobby’ for children in Sderot?
Where is the ‘lobby’ for children whose older siblings serve in the military? Whose parents and relatives are called up for reserve duty?
Where is the ‘lobby’ for children who see the world come to a complete physical halt when the sirens sound on Yom HaZicharon (and a week earlier, for Yom HaShoah)?
Last evening, as usual, my family came over for Shabbat dinner. We celebrated Yom HaAtzmaut (a day late) with cupcakes, candles, singing, and celebration for Israel’s 71st birthday.
Love of Israel begins at home. We savor Israeli food, music, and culture. We support, advocate, donate, and stay in close contact with our Israeli loved ones. We visit Israel as often as we can. We love intensely….but we love from afar.
Yom HaZicharon reminded me of that, as we waited in the synagogue lobby.