I lament my lack of blogging these days – just a lot going on and it’s hard to sit down to write. Here I’m going to reflect on the experiences I gained commemorating three important events of Modern Jewish History, all of which are significant when commemorated in Israel.
Holocaust Remembrance Day is becoming more and more irrelevant to people of this generation because survivors are dwindling in numbers and we don’t see the effect of the Holocaust and its implications. Yet it still has plenty of prominence in Israeli society. In the evening, streets are clear of cars and arsim, and people commemorate the Holocaust in one form or another.
Nativ had its own program in the evening. I believe it was well executed. It included Megillat Ha’Shoah – the liturgy published by the Conservative Movement for Yom Ha’Shoah* - as well as discussion groups and a presentation of Holocaust in media such as music, graphic literature (Maus by Art Spiegelman), art and sculpture, and a movie clip. Each mode of expression had its own merits, and some were more controversial than others. Without detailing each mode of expression, people shared interesting perspectives on the way different types were effective or appropriate or did justice to the things up for comparison. We all had a Yizkor candle to have at home in the end.
In the morning, I went to minyan early. I was of the philosophy over the course of the Yom that as we cry out to God on behalf of those who were murdered, it’s important to have unity and daven with a minyan and make sure our voices are truly heard. At around 10 a.m., per Elkana’s recommendation, I went over to the yeshiva high school to hear the siren, which was followed by speeches and discussion of heroism. While most people expressed sincerity during the morning, overall I did not see an entirely different mood there.
To conclude Yom HaShoah, we traveled to Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, near Ashkelon, for the ceremony that took place there. It’s one of two official closing ceremonies of the State of Israel for Yom HaShoah (the other is in the north). Yad Mordechai is named after Mordechai Anielewicz, a martyr of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The speeches included personal anecdotes and praise of heroism – Ehud Barak was among the speakers. Also there were dances, videos, song (Shlomo Gronich sang), and though a bit long, the ceremony was definitely an important Israel experience.
Unlike Yom Ha’Shoah, Yom Hazikaron for Israelis is not about the past, but rather about the present. What makes this remembrance day different from the one from the week before is that it this day marks present realities, as just about every Israeli knows someone who has fallen on behalf of the State of Israel. The total number of fallen soldiers has reached over 22,600. Because it is such an emotional day for Israelis, we did not participate in Yeruham’s ceremony (tekes) Sunday night. A Nativ va’ad planned a tekes for us, which included Yizkor and candle lighting, learning about different soldiers and heroes, and discussing our relationship to Yom Hazikaron.
Monday morning, we departed to Jerusalem for a 36-hour stay to include the commemoration of Yom Hazikaron and the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut. In the morning, we went to the tekes at Har Herzl, the big military cemetery in Jerusalem, which was packed with over 10,000 people. I walked around with Ariella and Elkana in the 1948 section, and we were near a lot of areas with names on tombstones but the bodies were in unknown locations. It was expected that the newer areas would have lots of people remembering, but not that many people have direct connections to people who were killed in the beginnings of the state. While being at Har Herzl gave us an opportunity to witness Israeli society commemorate Yom Hazikaron and to be a part of that commemoration, it’s hard as Americans to relate personally to the ceremony. Yet, my feeling is that these are the fallen soldiers of the Jewish people, fighting for the army of the Jewish people, and we have a place standing in solidarity with the Israelis as well. The ceremony included a speech by Bibi Netanyahu. We ate lunch at Beit Nativ, and following that we heard from Michael Levin’s parents (z”l) about the impact of the heroism of their son and the experience they’ve been through since his death. I won’t detail it here, but it was a touching story. He has become an icon of not just American Jewish Zionists, but of the Israeli army as a whole, and lone soldiers as well. After that speech, we heard from Elkana about a soldier who had worked under him that was killed in the Lebanon War and was in the same tank as Gilad Shalit (but that was after Elkana left the army). We watched a movie afterwards that was documents family whose son was near Beit Lyd at the time of an explosion and their waiting to hear news about his status. I had seen it once before in Hebrew class.
I’ve been to a few ceremonies before that mark the transition between Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, but here it was different. The in-thing among the religious crowd is to go to schul. They have a tekes to mark the end of Yom Hazikaron but then transitions into a festive Ma’ariv, done in the festival prayer melody. I’ve never been to schul before on Yom Ha’atzmaut in the evening. I went to Shira Hadasha, where one could not move due to the large crowd of worshippers. Here is the description I wrote at B’yachad about Hallel, which was one of the longest ever:
The piano and flute roar as people lift their voices to the heavens, the most festive Hallel I had ever seen. Almost all psalms were sung out loud, sometimes continuing on and on, in praise of the miracle of the State of Israel. A couple of things were done to the melody of Hatikva, connecting the saying of Hallel to the reason why we say it.
After schul, I saw Brenna and we headed towards downtown. Rechov Ben Yehuda was packed as ever. Music blared, and people were going around bopping each other with inflatable hammers and spraying foam on each other. I bought a hammer for the heck of it for 10 shekel. The atmosphere was of course very festive, and we had a good time walking around. People of all ages were out. After a while, though, it became just sort of a big party, a Thursday night at Crack Square magnified, with lots of drunken people and hip-hop music and that was disappointing. But in the morning I went to schul at Yakar, which was also festive in its davening when it came to Hallel, and then we had a mangal (BBQ) at Independence Park for the sunny afternoon. That’s an extremely Israeli thing to do – after all, after eight months of being here, we should act somewhat like Israelis.