Wednesday marked five years since I made aliyah. I like to celebrate my special day by wearing blue and white, and buying a falafel for lunch. This year, when I looked at the calendar, I realized my anniversary landed on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day here in Israel. I thought back to the last five Yom HaShoahs I’ve experienced since moving here, and felt a pang of regret that I hadn’t done something to commemorate the day in the last two years — of course, I could easily blame the coronavirus, but I knew it wasn’t entirely the pandemic’s fault.
So when the opportunity presented itself for me to attend the Yom HaShoah ceremony at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust history museum, I thought it would be a particularly meaningful way for me to commemorate the day.
I’m a logistics person, so I paid close attention to the details on the program. I’ve also recently been trying to channel my (very) inner Israeli and follow instinct, rather than general public instructions, so I stored the details in my head, and figured it would all work out.
The program said that the ceremony starts at 20:00, but attendees need to arrive by 18:00 for security purposes. I didn’t want to be a friar (sucker), so I showed up at 19:30…and nearly missed the opening because the security guard couldn’t understand why I would come by myself to such an event. She didn’t speak much English, and my Hebrew is not (yet) fluent; hence, the delay.
The program recommended dressing warmly, but I figured I’m from New Jersey, I can handle a slight April breeze, so I took a light jacket and shivered throughout the whole ceremony, cursing myself for not double-checking the evening weather before leaving my apartment that morning.
In my determination to assert my I’m-Israeli-now-I-know-better-ness, I started off the evening wondering if I made the wrong decision to come. Maybe I should have gone to an indoor Zikaron BaSalon like I did back in 2019. Or I should have gone to my friend’s Holocaust film viewing and discussion. At least that way, I would spend my Yom HaShoah doing something meaningful, and be home, warm, and in bed by 22:00 (ideal).
But then the music started — at 20:00 promptly, mind you — and I felt chills that were not just from the breeze.
But then the opening remarks were in Hebrew, and I felt silly for not understanding every word he was saying, even with subtitles on the screens.
But then the next speaker was also in Hebrew, and I found myself actively listening, trying hard to pay close attention not just to the words he was saying, but to the tone, the emotion behind them. I was so desperate to make this Yom HaShoah meaningful and more Israel-y than previous years, that I tuned out the English translation that people next to me were listening to on headphones. (Of course, I also didn’t know they were handing out said headphones, but that’s not the point.)
The musical performances were hauntingly beautiful. I only wish I knew the words so I could possibly make it a more meaningful experience.
The candlelighting ceremony was moving and emotional. One of the survivors, who was meant to light the second candle, had sadly passed away two weeks before, so his son lit in his place. I can’t imagine what that must have felt like for him. The fourth survivor was from Šiauliai/Schavel/Shavli, where my father’s father lived until the Nazi invasion of Lithuania in 1941. Naturally, as an avid Jewish Geography player, my first thought was, “I wonder if he knew Saba?” Both of the women survivors reminded me of my father’s mother, Savta, who passed away two and a half years ago, and whose death still feels somewhat impossible to me.
The religious aspects of the ceremony — a chapter of Tehillim (Psalms), El Maleh Rahamim (prayer for the souls of the deceased), and Kaddish — hit me as they always do. I felt the tears well up as I thought of my grandparents who survived the depths of hell in Auschwitz and Dachau, moved to America, and started a new life and family after the Nazis tried to eradicate their future. Their survival is the reason I was able to come to Israel all these years later.
I had brought a packet of tissues (okay fine, it was a roll of toilet paper — like I said, I’m embracing my inner Israeli), thinking I would use it all, as I was surely going to be sobbing uncontrollably throughout the hour-and-a-half ceremony. When that didn’t happen, I felt disappointed in myself for not attaining that ultra-meaningful experience I was chasing. For not being moved to actual tears. For not feeling more connected to this day than I have in the past. For leaving the ceremony basically the same as I came into it.
But I did find meaning, in my own way. I can’t comprehend six million. I can’t necessarily connect to every story I heard. I can’t force myself to feel meaning. But I can search for it, and maybe even find a little. It may not be earth-shattering, groundbreaking, life-changing meaning, but it’s there and it’s now a part of me, and my constantly evolving Jewish and Israeli identity.