We are heading towards the end of two months of holidays here in Israel. Tuesday evening at sunset began the national Day of Remembrance (Yom HaZikaron) for fallen Israeli soldiers and all victims of terrorism. It is one of the three most somber times in this country. As the sun sank lower over the Mediterranean, we lit our memorial candles and chanted the traditional prayer for the dead. Actually, the Yizkor prayer is more for the living, the mourners, and survivors. It extols G-d and sings His praises. He who creates and sustains all living beings is praised and elevated above all else. It is a prayer of hope, reminding us of who exactly is in charge here, of His magnificence, wisdom, power, and also His compassion. It is also a prayer of hope – life goes on. The lights in all the homes and buildings are dimmed, the radio stations begin to broadcast soft and soulful music for the next 24 hour period. At exactly 8 pm the sirens throughout the country begin their two minute alarm as all comes to a halt. People go out on their balconies and the nation begins the process of remembering. Thinking of all those who have given their lives to defend their homeland. Of all those innocent men, women, and children who have been senselessly, randomly, and brutally targeted in terror attacks. The silence after the sirens’ blast is absolutely tangible. The three national television stations broadcast ceremonies from the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem. Members of the military as well as national political and religious leaders, and families of those killed this past year are all present. Once again, another moving and heart-wrenching service. Since its inception in 1948, 23.328 men and women have given their lives to protect Israel. After the program, the stations stop their broadcast for the night.
On Wednesday, many business are closed, and trains and busses to cemeteries are free and run all day long. We new immigrants, however, were not exempt from attending our Ulpan Hebrew immersion class, which was a merciful half day for us. We learned the modern history of the State of Israel from the early 1900s onward. Ariel, a middle aged veteran who was injured in the 1980s during the war with Lebanon, spoke to our class about his job in the army as a mine locator and bomb detonator at the Northern border of Israel and Lebanon. For almost 20 years, the Lebanese would mine the borders and roads nightly to catch unsuspecting civilians and military the next day. Ariel was not so lucky on one of those occasions when a mine ripped off one arm and left injuries over his entire body. He now teaches at the Ulpan and leads a group of Karmi’elis helping out those less fortunate in any way possible. He told of how mentally difficult this day is for him and for all Israel. That it’s a kheshbon ha nefesh – an accounting of the souls, another opportunity to turn inward. He put it beautifully by saying it’s like a blood transfusion. It gives a new sense of meaning, purpose, and strength, which would become evident that night as the day draws to its close.
Everyone in the country wears white on Yom HaZikaron. As in America on Memorial Day, all flags are at half mast. Our class took a short walk to the local war memorial – every city and many neighborhoods have one – for a small remembrance of those from Karmi’el who have fallen in the wars. Throughout the country, floral wreaths were sent to the cemeteries and war memorials. The ribboned memorial wreaths came in from schools, synagogues, army units, families and friends of the fallen, the police, the fire department, Magen David Ha Adom Emergency/Red Cross), and local businesses. We lit our large memorial candle and sang the National Anthem, Hatikvah, and as it ended, at 11 am, the national sirens all over the land blasted another loud, long, and somber 2 minute cry. It was if the whole land, now at a stop again – all cars pull to the side, people get out and come out of local shops and schools and businesses – is in mourning for two very long minutes. We listened to poems delivered by mothers and grandmothers of late soldiers, and sang a couple very sad songs, and again chanted the Yizkor prayer before dismissal. The rest of the day is to be spent in silence, and schools and business again close early. This is not a recreational holiday, or a time for play, and everyone respects that.
After class, and returning home to pack up my stuff for the evening, I headed over to the city municipality at the end of the main downtown promenade. It was a time to be alone and read-but I really arrived early to get “my place in line” for the night’s festivities. Wrong!!! Except for the huge stage that had been erected, the place was like a ghost town. Sundown marks the end of Remembrance Day and the beginning of Independence Day (67 years young!) and each city boasts a large lineup of prominent Israeli acts for free. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!! For a free show like this, the line to see it would have started at least that morning. Here it was 2 pm, and there was no one. They were all home resting for the night’s events to come, I’m convinced. I was again the typical Californian and new immigrant. John and Max walked up to join me around 7, and the place was still quite empty except for vendors who were setting up for the night. As it grew closer to dusk, restaurants and cafes began to put their chairs and tables out on the sidewalk. Families began to appear. Everyone wearing blue and white, the colors of Israel. The atmosphere was still quiet and reserved as the city came out in silence.
As the day winds down, a huge and very noticeable shift in attitude occurs. Once again, at sunset, the marker for the new day in Judaism, a Havdalah, or separation liturgy was celebrated with the lighting of a candle. As soon as the final prayers were said and the national anthem sung again, as three stars shown in the night sky, the fireworks started, and the crowd exploded with delight!!! We had an amazing lineup of acts including Yuval Dayan, who often appears with Idan Rachel (Idan played free on a Tel Aviv stage that night), followed by Omer Adam, Israeli teen heartthrob. He has the most beautiful morning prayer (top 10 hit here!!), Modeh Ani: “I give thanks, G-d. Every morning as I wake. For my life, the beauty of creation around me, my family, my friends, my faith….” (Look it up on iTunes). All the local teenie boppers were out in front, loudly singing all the songs at the tops of their lungs. In America, I think I would have been put off by some of their pushing to get closer, and by their singing over the beautiful melodies of Omer Adam, but then I realized in just a few very short years, they would be placing their lives on the fronts in full military service to defend me and this beautiful country. Ah, perspective!!! At the end of his act, the moms and dads gathered their children and young teens to stroll Main Street, lit overhead by thousands of twinkle lights, and full of lively people. Israeli flags and banners everywhere – from every building and patio, street light, and car. There were stilt walkers, clowns, face painters, great food, balloon artists, street vendors. All so celebratory!!
By 11 pm, the young adults and older teens were definitely a big part of the crowd – now waiting patiently for the main act: HaDag Nahash!!!! Oy va voy!!!! Very popular with Jewish “kids” in the states – a mix between pop and rap, and very danceable! I had a blast, and sang along with the crowd to most of the songs. (there were lots of middle aged folk too!!). And the night was still young. Still tons of activities throughout town – more fireworks! comedy acts at the civic arts plaza. Folk dancing til 3am in the amphitheater (that’s for me!!), karaoke, and live acts throughout different venues – and all over the city as we walked home in the middle of the night, families were having private bashes on their patios and in their backyards. We heard everything from traditional folk songs sung round a fire pit to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” blasted from a boombox. I, lagging behind John and Max from sheer exhaustion, was asked to join a large group of young adults around a small campfire in our neighborhood park. Tempting – so I stayed and chatted for a few minutes – before parting ways with joyous shouts of Happy Holiday! Happy Independence! Welcome! and numerous fist bumps and high fives.
For those who couldn’t or didn’t get out for the festivities, the television stations show a broadcast, again from the Kotel in Jerusalem with all the now-familiar dignitaries. 12 torches are lit symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel. Each person called for the honor of lighting a torch has somehow contributed great things to Israel and the world over the past year. There is usually a scientist, business person, soldier, artist, author, film person…and Benjamin Netanyahu hands out the Israel Prize, a great honor bestowed each year on an especially deserving citizen. It is definitely a high honor. And the partying and festivities continue through the day until sunset falls again.
I have been asked some thoughtful questions by many of the Americans with whom I keep in touch. Is Israel a religious country or is it more secular? What is the mindset of the people? I am still very much an observer, an onlooker in this new place I now call home. I try to engage as many people I can, young and old, native born and immigrant. They all seem to know their past. It’s in the stories handed down from generation to generation: they know the writings – from the Bible to recent history. Bible is a mandatory subject in all the schools from kindergarten through high school. It’s a past of lost glory with a destiny to reclaim it. It’s a past of dispersion, wandering, and gaining a temporary sense of security, only to be persecuted, executed, and driven out of their homelands – yet always praying towards and dreaming of the East – Jerusalem. They know of grandfathers, fathers, brothers, sons who have given their lives with the words, “Never Again!” on their lips.
They know of the past, and despite the realities of the future in Israel, they hold intense feelings of hope. Their songs – from the modern songs of today – from pop to reggae; from rap to indie folk and world beat, the songs of the people are songs of love, hope, and future peace. I have never heard one Hebrew/Israeli song that is lewd, lustful, or violent in any way. I have never heard one song of conquest or imperialism. Most of the lyrics mention G-d or contain words from the Psalms or parts of the Jewish liturgy. Songs of love speak of the dreams of a father for his son; the closeness of family; the love of nature and creation; songs to/of a beloved. They sing of the Way of Peace and Unity- through the help and promise of G-d, of a time (why not now?) of oneness when we can live hand in hand and heart in heart together. They are mostly a happy people. After the day of intense sadness and memory of the past, these people know how to peacefully and joyfully celebrate. The whole nation throws a 24 hour party. It’s not just for the young. It is not atypical to see whole family groups spanning the generations celebrating together. Family is central here. Faith in G-d, whether observant Orthodox Jewish practice, or simply an acknowledgment of the Divine, seems to be an essential part of the lives of the Jewish people living here again after 2000 years of wandering and persecution. The people are returning to this land, given to them after World War II by the British Mandate, and later, a vote from the UN; purchased with money from Arabic people willing to sell large parcels of barren wasteland; bought also with the sweat of the original pioneers to transform the deserts and swamps into life-giving farmland and vibrant cities; and with the blood of the soldiers. It is a land rich with promise, booming with technology, scientific advancements, arts and culture, growing families and cities. A land and a people constantly threatened with destruction from all sides who cling to their hope, their faith, their families, and G-d. It is a nation who justly needs recognition for their contributions to humanity on all levels, and I am proud to be a part of this miraculous part of history.
HATIKVAH: The Hope (National Anthem)
As long as in the heart, within
A Jewish soul is yearning,
And to the edges of the East, forward,
An eye watches towards Zion.
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free nation in our own land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.