One of the most important days In Israel is today: Yom HaShoah. The day we commemorate the Holocaust
And one of the most terrible sounds in the whole world is the siren on Yom HaShoah. It’s the sound of every mother and daughter and father and son, every sister and brother and lover and friend screaming from that miserable maw of humanity, that sound mixed down into one keening wail.
But one of the most moving sites in the whole world is what happens in Israel during the siren on Yom HaShoah. The entire country grinds to a halt.
We put aside the grievances, the stress. Coffee cups are placed down mid-sip. Arguments end mid-sentence. A joke breaks at the punchline. Even the children stop playing, their bodies eerily still on the playground, stiller than the trees that grow deep into the ground, branches swaying against the sky. Every car pulls to the side of the road. And we stand. Together.
And every year I want to be where I don’t just hear it, but I see it.
So I can feel.
Last year, I stood in a cafe, and I stood with everyone, because everyone stood, and while the siren blared, the cappuccino machine hissed because you don’t turn off the machine when the siren stops — you just stop. You stop and you stand, and nothing matters but those terrible moments when you’re hearing that sound, shaken: you remember.
The year before I was near a highway — and from the high up windows, I looked down, and saw each and every car pull to the side of the road, and the doors open, and each driver and each passenger, stand straight and silent. I remember crying when I saw that. Israelis never agree on anything – and yet, on Yom HaShoah we move as one.
This year I stand at Jaffa Gate.
I am curious to see what happens in an area where both Palestinians and Israelis share space – if not conversation.
And Jaffa Gate is that nexus point. It’s the gate facing west, over the hills and forests, across the fields and to the sea — Back in the day if you walked out of Jaffa Gate and headed in a straight line, you would hit the port city of Jaffa where the waves crash on the rocks and merchants and pilgrims would arrive seasick and weary to take the road back again to Jerusalem.
It’s the entrance to the Christian Quarter — but if you turn right, you’ll hit the Armenian Quarter, and many Jewish Israelis — both secular and observant — use it as an entry point, too … Muslims as well. There are souvenir shops run by Palestinian guys who sell yarmulkes and IDF t-shirts, next to a place run by this Greek Orthodox guy who sells crosses and icons. Just around the corner is a place with gorgeous Armenian pottery. Inside the gate, sometimes there’s an angel playing the harp. It’s the gate where the roads really meet.
And I know a lot of the people hanging out there – Like Zaki who sells bread, and Ali the cop from Daliat el-Carmel, and George who plays motown’s greatest hits and sells black coffee with cardamom and pomegranate juice, and all the soldiers who keep changing, but who are always there.
And I want to be here to see what happens, on this day when the Israel I know and live in screeches to a halt.
Who would stop?
How would I feel if the people I know didn’t stop?
So I wait. I sit down on the cobblestone street before the siren because I want to stand to be seen making that active choice to go from one way to another — from a place of easy rest, to a state of total attention.
And the siren wails and I stop and I stand, and I look around. The Border Police stand beside me. The men in yarmulkes stand, too. The mother with the sheitel and the baby carriage stop mid step, frozen.
Four little kids with yarmulkes and sidelocks were running toward David Street, and they stop, little trees rooted to the ground.
It takes the tourists a minute to figure out WTF is going on – I see them look at each other, baffled, like “oh shit, we got front row seats to the Zombie apocalypse,” but their guide explains and they stop.
Nuns and priests waft past me, talking.
Women in hijab, too.
The old men playing backgammon – Including Abu Ibrahim – keeps rolling the dice, and a taxi drives past and curves around the Tower of David.
And across the way, my friend Harout from the Armenian Quarter checks his phone, and takes a picture of me standing there, a statue in jeans and a tank top, and decorated with bracelets from his cousin’s shop.
I feel a lot of things.
And I let myself feel them.
The Holocaust is part of my identity – I didn’t live it personally, but it’s in my DNA, as are thousands of years of persecution we have endured — throughout Europe, and the Middle East, and the Americans too.
My optimism comes from a history of survival. My sense of the absurd and the macabre, too. Because I am alive against all odds.
I go between the Jewish and Muslim and Christian and Armenian Quarters because after surviving all of this, I am free and strong, and I will live that way or die.
I criticise the government because we did not survive thousands of years of persecution to put up with bullshit from our own leaders. I fight for human rights and demand equality for everyone dafka because #NeverAgain cannot just be about us. It means never again for anyone else, in any gradation – from prejudice to full on persecution. No.
And the siren reminds me of all of this – and it reminds of such a great loss . A systematic, mechanised, MODERN genocide — on purpose, planned, and meticulously carried out against the Jews — as well as so many others.
And the Holocaust is bigger than Israel. It’s bigger than the Jewish people. It is a horror almost beyond reckoning, and yes: I want the world to recognise it.
And yes, I want my friends to recognize it.
So after the siren, I walk up to Harout.
I can still hear the echo of the siren, the little hairs on the back of my neck are still standing.
“Good morning,” I say to him with tears in my eyes as I think about all those people — all those millions of people — who were murdered.
He reaches out, and I shake his hand.
“Good morning” he answers.
I start to speak when he hands me a black coffee and says:
“Tell me something, Sarah: Why was there a siren just now?”
And a sound that was half laugh and half sob tears out of me, and my eyes fill with tears again, because really, he just didn’t know.
And a new wave of sadness washed over me because here in the place that holy to us all, where the Old City comes together, we all live in different worlds.
“Oh right!” He says.
Maybe next year he’ll remember.
“You know, it’s the day we commemorate the Armenian Genocide,” he tells me.
I had no idea. Maybe next year I’ll remember, too.
This was an excerpt from the book Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered, an intimate memoir about love and sex and despair and hope in the hottest piece of spiritual real estate in the world: