After Passover, Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, remembering and honoring victims of the Holocaust. The following week, the nation remembers fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks. Immediately afterwards, the streets are filled with joy for Independence Day.
It took a while for me to connect to this rhythm of honoring the memory of the dead and celebrating the birth of a country. But I think the bottom line is that Israel loves life while not rejecting or denying the sacrifices made by others.
Maagan Michael 2001
The first time I experienced the 5-minute limbo between Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, I was emotionally confused. At Maagan Michael, these days are taken very seriously. The kibbutz was around in some form or another since before the birth of the state, so their cemetery held soldiers from every war. There were ceremonies. The cemetery was cleaned and decorated. People told stories, they honored the fallen, and they remembered.
Maagan Michael’s cemetery
And then as we gathered together to solemnly close the day together, we said a few final words, and then we stopped. Five quiet minutes passed. And then fireworks. Now it was time to be happy. Hoorah! Independence Day! Time to party! BBQ tomorrow!
Honestly, it felt a little manic-depressive, but the other way around—solemn sadness and then within 5 minutes, joy and elation. But I get it now. Life is short and you cannot linger in the sadness forever. Similarly, people continue to live their lives even in the shadow of terrorist violence, even when we were in the dark days of suicide bombings.
And now, it even makes sense to me: it is important to remember and honor the soldiers who sacrificed their lives defending the state, and also to remember and honor the innocent civilians who were victims of terror; and the best way to do that is to live, to be joyful, to be courageous, and to celebrate. But it’s also important to keep those days separate so that the commemoration and memory don’t turn into a celebration. I think often of Memorial Day in the US. If you don’t know any soldiers, it’s just a 3-day weekend to kick off summer with a BBQ or buy a mattress because there’s a big sale on. Not here.
This is a little clip (19 seconds) from The West Wing describing how Israel remembers their soldiers. I have one tiny little issue with it, though I understand why it was phrased that way. Leo McGarry says that it happens on May 13, the day before Israeli Independence Day. Well, in 19 seconds, it’s a little hard to explain that the date changes because Independence Day is celebrated according to the Jewish calendar, so Remembrance Day on the 4th of Iyar, whenever that happens to be on the Gregorian calendar.
And he’s right. Here are a few snapshots of my television screen this year. There was soft Israeli music playing in the background, not sad music exactly, but definitely mellow and understated. As I watched the names change, I realized that every single name represented a family that lost someone. This year, the number of fallen stands at 23,447.
Major Levy Feigenbaum z”l 1 July 1974
Staff Sargent Avraham “Bomi” Schwartz z”l 23 September 1974
On Yom HaZikaron, there are two national sirens, one at 8:00pm to signify the start of Remembrance Day for one minute, and one at 11:00am the next morning for two minutes. The same behaviors apply as they do for Yom HaShoah: everyone stops, people stand, and we do it all together.
For Independence Day, Jerusalem allows parties all night. I didn’t go – I’ve been there and done that, and it’s usually a wild, drunken scene. Still, I could hear the partying in the street from home and I had a perfect view of the fireworks. On offer was a city-sanctioned “rave” downtown, folk dancing at the square by city hall, and many of the bars had some kind of Independence Day party theme.
Seriously, I didn’t even go outside for these.
The next day, the park was filled with youth groups, buses dropped off thousands of tourists in the area, and I happened to see a March of the Living group from Argentina. (March of the Living groups usually visit concentration camps in Europe and commemorate Yom HaShoah there and then come to Israel for Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut.)
The spring holiday cycle
So now this year’s journey is complete: we began as slaves in Egypt and took 40 years of wandering to become a nation; we faced near-annihilation in the Holocaust; we built a state and to protect it and its citizens, soldiers sacrificed their lives and civilians lost their lives in terror attacks; and now we have arrived at Independence Day, when we celebrate the last line in the national anthem, “to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”