Visiting and storytelling at Har Herzl on Israel’s Memorial Day

A colleague who visits children of friends and neighbors, acquaintances and others at Har Herzl every year invited some of us to join him today on Israeli Memorial Day. I had never been there on Yom HaZicaron itself, so the experience was new.

There’s a lot to see and hear. High school students. Scouts. Foreign students. Next generation soldiers. Career soldiers.

And family, family, and more family.

We’re getting to the point where there aren’t going to be many people left who remember fighting in 1948. Their gravesites are slightly less occupied by visitors.

I had never really given much thought to the last olim pre-independence; they escaped from Hitler’s Europe, came off the boats in 1947, and stepped straight into ‘uniform’. And of course, many many fell in 1948, fighting for the right to freedom they had lacked only a year before:

Below, this Nissim was a runner for the Jewish army, based in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1948 – locked in and fighting to bridge the sides.

He was show by an enemy sniper, who found a hole in the sandbags – shot right in his own home.

He was also ten years old.

In this pool rest the memories of 140 soldiers who fell to the sea.

And then – this happened.

Mrs. Aharoni comes every year to visit her brother-in-law’s grave. He fell in 1948. She worries about who will visit when she’s gone.

My colleague met her here one year; he had brought his son to show him who came before him in fighting for this land; they asked her for her story. And promised to visit Yehuda Aharoni’s grave every year, so she wouldn’t have to worry that no one would come after her. He started coming ever since.

Last year she didn’t show and he assumed, perhaps, the worst.

As we started walking from the site, we saw a woman being lifted in her wheelchair towards our direction.

Mrs. Aharoni appeared. And my colleague was there. And so were we. So now we’ve heard her story from her.

And we are here, too.


A thought on respect.

Can you imagine if September 11 was a shopping day? A day for sales? A 4-day weekend?

Why can’t the general American Memorial Day get even 1% of the respect we give to the September 11 memorial? Yes, the latter is a specific event. Yes, it was only ten years ago, freshly tattooed to our brains.

I guess I just would have thought that by now – ten years and two+ wars later – we would have tried to reform the American Memorial Day experience just a little bit.

Remembering to remember.

I’m lost in the new parent time warp. Completely forgot that Yom HaZicaron started last night until we heard the siren from my hospital room. Watched many of the nurses and patients stand still in the corridor while the Arabs and Charedis went about their ways. 

Yom HaZicaron has the potential to take on a totally different meaning when you are sitting in an Israeli hospital, watching your newborn son.

What exactly is a 'happy' Memorial Day?

Can a Memorial Day be happy? Isn’t the essence of the concept to reflect, to introspect, to national-spect? I find that with national-specting comes a bit of shame, a dash of pride and a whole lotta tears either way.

To some, Israeli and American Memorial Days might be categorized as fraternal twins, if related at all. I would categorize them as not even making it to drastically different. They are more like completely separate concepts. And the primary reasons make sense:

1. Size of the country: Israel has about six million or so remembering while the United States has… a lot more people not remembering.

2. Content: Whatever Israelis are remembering, it happened within the century and most likely less than 60 years ago. Every non-charedi community has some sort of tekes happening, while most people would at least acknowledge the sirens that go off in the evening and morning. In the States, people are not as likely to give the last century much of a thought, nevermind the country’s humble – and bloody – beginnings.

3. People personality: Israelis and Americans have completely different national personalities. In the face of diversity, most Israelis somehow wind up identifying with the national loss. Israelis are a bunch of people plucked from a rainbow, huddled together in the corner of the room. Americans have no one face of diversity; what keeps them different keeps them apart.

4. Process: There is no process for most Americans, who probably don’t know any soldiers past or present anyway. I heard on the radio – maybe it was NPR even – announcements regarding the efforts the President was making today, and how he asked all Americans to pause at 3pm in their respective time zones. It’s hard to feel the silence when a couple states over your neighbors are still munching on BBQ. Israelis have an incredible, real, raw process that actually goes on for most of the year. The difference in the day is that there is a harmony of grown men’s tears.

Well, here I am in the United States for Memorial Day, a three-day weekend that has been relatively quiet. I myself am one of those removed Americans… waiting for a process to draw my tears.

A Yom HaZicaron message or two.

This morning I donated blood at Hadassah hospital in Ein Kerem. The nurses who worked my veins were both Arab. I was curious to stay until the siren to see how the blood bank unit, including the nurses, would react but it was going to happen too late.

Instead I was driving along Herzog. It was the first time I’ve had a car/been driving and did the whole stop in the middle of traffic thing.

Meanwhile, my cell phone has a message for everyone:

A small community Yom HaZicaron.

A small community Yom HaZicaron tekes is unlike the others I’ve been to in Israel. There is something about it. Maybe it sounds strange, but it’s almost like the smallness makes it more intense. At the kotel or Rabin square, you know why you are there… Or you feel the obvious magnitude of the occasion.

Hundreds of community members gathered in the school yard, with a small stage set up. Everyone was chatting, moving chairs, petting dogs. The MC was attempting to get everyone’s attention over the loud talking. He started to announce that in a few moments the siren would sound, would everyone turn off their phones, and please take their –

Everything stops for the Yom HaZicaron siren. Everything. Chatting, babies, dogs, microphones, MCs. This siren was really loud, the loudest I’ve ever heard it; it was also the quietest I’ve ever heard it.

There is something about a small Israeli community on Yom HaZicaron. When it is families that are surrounding you, you can feel the pain in the cracks between the crowd. They say everyone knows someone who has perished for the country – and here are the young families, remembering while moving on. A woman singing a song dedicated to her father, who died in ’67. A boy reading a rhyme for his shevet’s madrich, who perished in Lebanon. A mother-to-be reciting a poem for her brother, who was lost this past year.

The abruptness of the stop was what jerked me into Yom HaZicaron this year. Chatting, laughing, talking, cooing – stop.

There is something about a small Israeli community on Yom HaZicaron.

The state of Israel in 5758.

This is the time of year when the State of Israel has a chance to really look deep into the heart of herself and understand what condition she’s in. It’s the post-Pessach triangle of introspection: yesterday was Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and next week are Yom HaZicaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day).

When I was younger, and full of the enthusiasm and energy of Herzl’s Zionism, this triangle was one of my favorite times of the year. Yom HaShoah was the day to remember why we need a state; Yom HaZicaron was the day to remember how we’ve managed to defend the state; Yom Haatzmaut was the day to celebrate how we will continue to flourish in this state.

That was, of course, before I lived in Israel.

The state of the Jewish State is bleak. Actually, it’s quite depressing. I’m tired of hearing all those wonderful accomplishments and inventions done by Israelis; It’s not moving me anymore to see pictures of young European Jews building the kibbutzim. Those are still wonderful things, to be sure. And I do get still get teary-eyed when I sing the words to Hatikvah. But pardon me if I think there are other things we need to go back to focusing on.

On Yom HaShoah I read that Holocaust survivors’ situation is worsening. I wonder why the elderly who starved under German torture are starving under the Israeli government? How are we going to continue keeping our kids’ interested in this piece of Jewish history when we can be so nonchalant towards our grandparents, who are all nearly dead? How are we going to survive ourselves?

On Yom HaZicaron I wonder what our 18-year-old soldiers are really getting killed for. Do the sirens move Ehud Omert? When he is standing with his arms behind his back, eyes low, is he thinking about the soldiers ‘ blood or border security? Is he thinking about how embarrassing it is for us to have him as a prime minister? What is the long-term plan here? How are we going to manage to stay here in Israel? Who will fight our wars in the next 20 years?

And, finally, Yom Haatzmaut this year: turning 60. I’m having a hard time understanding why this number is worth going into debt, pouring millions and millions of shekels into frivolous parties instead of working on social programs in the State’s honor to show off the good soul of the Jewish State. I’m wondering why the government is busy making sure that no one uses the Israel 60th birthday logo without permission instead of worrying over the fact that most non-immigrant Israelis I speak to are completely disenchanted with Independence Day this year. Why celebrate a lie? Why celebrate debt?

Why celebrate the state of the State of Israel this year?