Sixty Seconds – Memorial Day to Independence

April 24, 2009 by

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Ephraim Kishon, the famous Israeli writer and director, once wrote: “Israel is the only country in which, between the happiest day of the year and the saddest one, you have exactly sixty seconds.” He was referring of course, to the juxtaposition of Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Remembrance Day, with Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.

Only sixty seconds between the happiest day and the saddest one? In emotional terms at least, it sometimes seems that way. On Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and the victims of terror attacks, many of us who have spent all day attending memorial ceremonies, standing to attention during the siren, and visiting the cemeteries and army bases and kibbutzim of relatives and friends, wearily make our way home in the late hours of the afternoon. Towards evening, we take out our big Israeli flags (if we can remember where we stored them last year), and hang them out in front of our homes. In the national religious community, we change into dark blue trousers/skirt and a crisp white shirt, and we make our way to synagogue for the special evening prayers of Yom Ha’Atzmaut. There we will sing at the top of our voices, to thank God for giving us the State of Israel.

But for my husband, my children and myself, Yom Ha’Atzamut really begins 24 hours before that, when at dusk we walk up the hill and past the rose garden in Bet Shemesh to the City War Memorial, in order to attend the evening memorial ceremony for Yom HaZikaron. This year it will feel different to other years, because for the first time we have two children serving in the IDF, a son and a daughter. Our son “neither slumbers nor sleeps” guarding the Lebanese border, and our daughter spent five weeks on the Gaza border during Operation Cast Lead, supervising encryption codes for IDF communications equipment. Yom HaZikaron holds more pride, and more fear for us this year.

Of course, we aren’t the only ones walking up the hill. About a thousand other people are converging, mostly on foot, from all corners of the town. There we all are, the little old ladies being helped out of cars, the three year olds running around and getting under everyone’s feet, the teenagers chatting into their cell phones, the couples pushing babies in strollers, the chain-smoking taxi drivers, Dudu who owns the supermarket, Yulia who taught my kids piano, Kobi the builder who does everyone’s home remodeling, the Sephardim and the Ashkenazim, the Moroccans and the Yemenites, the Americans and the Brits and the Ethiopians and the Russians. There we all are, making a terrible racket and finding our seats at the Memorial as darkness descends. Then the siren sounds, and instantly, within a second, there is total silence. Heads down, feet together, arms by side, all of us stop what we are doing or saying and just stand, for one full minute, and remember. The warm April breeze caresses us we stand together in the darkness, while the Israeli flags, towering above us on their poles, flutter and furl and unfurl themselves, and the screen which will show photos of those we have lost is still blank, and the flame which will be lit by a bereaved mother and father is still unlit, and two little girls, standing to attention either side of the unlit torch, still look down, and have not yet lifted up their faces to face the crowd. Then the siren stops, as suddenly as it started, and we all sit down, and the ceremony begins.

Although this is a very moving opening to the next 24 hours, for me the hardest part of Yom HaZikaron by far, is the following day, when the siren sounds again at eleven o’clock in the morning. In the twenty four years I’ve lived here, I’ve been many places when the siren sounds: in crowded shopping malls, on Ben Yehuda street, sitting in the car in bumper-to bumper traffic, on the bus, at work, in the supermarket – and in all of these places the same magical transformation occurs – everything stops, people get out of their cars or out of their seats and stand to attention. It is the eeriest thing in the world to be travelling on the train when it literally stops on the tracks, and all the passengers stand up.

Nowadays I like to be in my garden when the siren sounds. I have planted every tree, every shrub, every flower and every blade of grass there. The garden is ravishing this time of year, in Israel’s quick and hot spring weather. It was barren and ugly and full of cement and nails when we bought our house. So the garden represents to me all my labors and toils in the land of Israel, starting with no language and no family and no understanding of the life here, and the slow planting and tending and growing and blossoming of everything Aryeh and I have come to love and treasure, especially our children. When the siren sounds I stand at the garden fence and look across to the main road where I can see all the cars slowing to a halt, and all the drivers getting out and standing to attention. I grab one of the branches of something I have planted and grown, and I hold on to it, and I try not to get too upset and too emotional, but still, every time the siren begins its high- pitched wail I start to tremble. I literally shake from head to foot, thinking of all the people, particularly the young people, who have died so that I can live here. And it is not just those who have died who have sacrificed. So many soldiers and victims of terrorist attacks have suffered amputations, burns, loss of sight and hearing, and sometimes, through post traumatic stress disorder, loss of sanity, loss of all mental and emotional stability in their lives. I stand there quietly trembling, ridiculously holding on to some branch or other, and I remember them.

The afternoon wears on, and, appropriate or not, the coming festivities of Yom Ha’aztmaut begin to filter into my consciousness. I can hear the technical people in the park opposite shouting “testing, testing” through their microphones, and I can see city employees setting out all the fireworks for the evening’s big display, and my neighbor Yakir starts mowing his lawn and setting out tables and chairs in his garden. Now I shut off the computer and go into the kitchen, and deep-fry a million felafel balls for the party we’ll be having tonight, and I defrost the pitta bread and get out the humus and the eggplant and coleslaw, and put the diet coke in the fridge. Aryeh will come home from work and together we’ll put out our Israeli flag (which I think we put under the stairs last year) by the front door. Then we’ll all take showers and change into our blue and white clothing, and as the sun sets we’ll walk up to our synagogue, the one which took us twelve years to build, and in sixty seconds, Yom HaZikaron will turn into Yom Ha’atzmaut. By then it will be dark, and we’ll recite the evening prayers, and we’ll sing at the tops of our voices, to thank God for giving us the State of Israel.

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