Yom HaZikaron reveals
Israel’s unique emotional rollercoaster
The first time I experienced Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Day of Independence, was in Vancouver in the spring of 1998.
I was finishing the formal studies for my conversion to Judaism, and our class from Temple Sholom joined hundreds of Vancouver Jews to celebrate Israel’s 50th birthday.
It was incredibly exciting to be part of such a landmark occasion and to share the communal joy. It was also the first time I had listened consciously to the singing of “Hatikvah.” And, while I didn’t understand a word, I was moved to tears by its haunting melody – it’s one of the few national anthems written in a minor key – and by the power of a group of mostly Canadian Jews honouring the miracle of Israel.
But I didn’t really understand the true significance of Yom Ha’Atzmaut until my first trip to Israel exactly five years later, when I experienced it in its true context.
Part of that context is being in Israel. I have spent many evenings of the national holiday with Israeli friends in Jerusalem, barbecuing, singing Israeli and Zionist songs and watching the fireworks on Mount Herzl from their balcony.
But the true context of celebrating Israel’s independence is experiencing it in conjunction with the 24 hours that precede it – Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance.
Nothing really can prepare an outsider for the 48-hour experience of the two holidays together. In the late afternoon before Yom Hazikaron, restaurants and places of entertainment close early. At 8 pm, air raid sirens shriek across the country.
Unlike in Canada, where far too many people fail to observe the two minutes of silence at 11 am on November 11, most of Israel comes to a standstill.
I still remember standing on my hotel balcony that night in 2003, only a couple of hours after we’d arrived in Israel. I was astounded to see traffic stop on one of the busiest streets of Tel Aviv. Most drivers exited their cars, stood at attention and bowed their head in silent reflection.
This process is repeated at 11 the next morning. Every school has a special ceremony, and many people slip out during the day to honour dead friends and relatives at cemeteries. Radio programs feature sombre music about war and loss.
The full name of the day is Yom Hazikaron l’Chalalei Ma’arachot Yisrael v’l’Nifgaei Peulot Ha’eivah, the Day of Remembrance for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism.
Mourning is never theoretical or at arm’s length in Israel. Compulsory military service means that virtually every Israeli knows or is related to a fallen soldier. Most Israelis, even kids, have known victims of terror attacks, and there are always fresh losses to mourn.
The most recent victim at the time of writing was Baruch Mizrahi, a 40-year-old police officer shot by a Palestinian terrorist on his way to a Pesach seder in Hebron. His pregnant wife was wounded, but is in “moderate” condition, and one of their three kids has shrapnel wounds.
It is indeed intense mourning. Yet, when 8 pm comes around, we switch gears into genuine, exuberant and passionate celebrations of the creation of Israel.
There are often transitional ceremonies – especially moving are those conducted by March of the Living participants who have just arrived in Israel from Auschwitz – but it is still an emotional rollercoaster that is unique to Israel.
I have written before about Israelis’ ability to mourn deeply one minute and intensely celebrate life the next. It is not unique to Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut. We see it throughout the year as families and communities defy terrorists and enemies by choosing to embrace life in the face of loss. But it is exquisitely intense at this time of year.
The juxtaposition of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut reminds Israelis and Diaspora Jews that the Jewish homeland exists, and continues to exist, because of tremendous sacrifices and unspeakable loss. It can never be taken for granted.
We can celebrate – another Israeli specialty – but we cannot forget the losses.
In the Book of Kohelet, it is written, “Everything has its season.” It specifies that there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.
In Israel every spring, those seasons change with the sound of a siren, a flash of fireworks and an anthem of hope.