[April 15, 2021]. I’m telling this story after midnight here in Jerusalem, just after the fireworks for Yom Ha’Atzmaut, which I hear from a distance, while I am simultaneously subjected to the incessant driving beat of the “music” and the obnoxious shouting of the DJ at the venue a 5-minute walk from my apartment. My sound machine (it doesn’t matter if I set it to rain, thunderstorm, ocean or tropical forest) does nothing to drown it out. It if were Israeli folk dance music I wouldn’t mind, but this is just plain NOISE — no melody, no soul.
This is a story of Yom HaZikaron in Jerusalem in 2021, a year when the fast of Ramadan began the previous day. I arrived late at the Home for People with Disabilities where I work just one morning per week. (For me, late is the norm, to the point where no one even thinks of me as arriving late no matter how late I stroll in. True to form, I am publishing this blog “late” as well).
Today I walked through the gate and everyone was out in the courtyard, about to begin a Yom HaZikaron ceremony. The flag was at half-mast, the handyman lit a fire, and the activities person played Barbara Streisand singing Avinu Malkeinu on a boom box, followed by a bunch of sad Israeli songs. Various staff members read poems. Then we all stood in silence (actually, the staff stood and the residents sat, except for the one resident who could stand) while the siren wailed throughout the country for a full two minutes. Even Yitzchak Shimoni, who stayed in his room last week during the Yom HaShoah ceremony, came down to the courtyard for this ritual, which is the holiest day of the year in this country, holier than Yom HaKippurim. Then one resident read something (I was happy that at least one of the residents participated in an active way), Shaul chanted El Maleh Rachamim, and we all sang Hatikvah.
I looked around and noticed that Ziad was out there with us. He is the cleaning guy, and the only Palestinian on the staff. Uncharacteristically, I have not made an effort to get to know him – I’m only there 3-4 hours per week. I notice that he seems to get along well with the male caregivers – he hangs out with them, smokes, eats and watches TV with them. He seems to be quite comfortable at our shared workplace. But I couldn’t help thinking that it must be awkward for him on this day – when we sing our national anthem and read about all the people, i.e. Jews, who have been killed in wars and acts of terror, and the TV all day long is full of testimonies and tears of people who have lost loved ones.
From the snippets I caught while treating several residents in their rooms, there are now more and more stories of people who were killed in terror attacks in Judea and Samaria. Not the old stories of people who died in the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War – stories that used to arouse my compassionate tears. Not portraits of people who died in suicide bombings on buses and in cafes in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and throughout Israel during the 2nd Intifada 20 years ago. Each murder is a tragedy. The individuals being mourned and memorialized may each have been beautiful souls. I know from a close mutual friend of one of the victims that she was an extraordinary light in this world. And yet, I find myself with mixed feelings about people being turned into national heroes for being stabbed while shopping in a supermarket, while out jogging, or in their homes – all in the West Bank, where I would not choose to live.
Anyway, before I left, when I was on the 3rd floor looking for Nachum, I saw Ziad sitting alone near the balcony – not watching TV with the aides as he usually does on a break. I went over to him and said, “I don’t know you very well. I see that you get along with everyone here. I just want to acknowledge that this must not a simple day for you. It must be hard to be a Palestinian here today – especially when you are the only one.” He seemed a bit surprised that I had approached him with this, but he nodded and seemed to appreciate that I said something, awkward as it was.
I told him that I think it’s problematic that we are mourning and not thinking about what we can do to change the situation so that there is less to mourn, so that the cycle of violence does not continue. I said that we Israelis need to be aware that Palestinians are mourning their losses too – that there are bereaved families on both sides. I asked if he knew about the Joint Memorial Ceremony facilitated by the Bereaved Families Forum and Combatants for Peace. He had never heard of it. I told him that last night I watched it – it took place in both Tel Aviv and Ramallah. He seemed interested. I left him with my iPhone set to the beginning of the recorded ceremony, which begins with Miriam Toukan (a Palestinian who is an Israeli citizen) singing a song in both Hebrew and Arabic: “I want beautiful trees and not wars…and houses full of babies…. and blessed rains.” I told him he could watch as much as he wanted and leave my phone on the windowsill and I’d get it later. When I eventually came back I could see he stopped watching at 8 minutes. I hope I wasn’t too forward.
By contrast, at the nursing home where I work 5 days per week, almost all of the caregivers are Palestinian. I went there this afternoon when I left the Home for People with Disabilities. Yesterday I noted that the nursing home residents were served dinner a full hour early. And today, the same. 17:15 seems a bit early for dinner. When I asked why they were eating so early, the Russian nurse said, “It’s Ramadan!” I asked, “What does that have to do with it?” Mildly annoyed, she replied, “The caregivers need to get home early to break their fast! Haven’t you worked here during Ramadan before?!”
More fireworks now – I’ll take that as a signal to end this story.