The in-between time

How do you go from the depths of despair to the heights of happiness in five minutes?  Is it a form of manic-depressive disorder?  Is there a switch that they install in your brain when you make aliyah?

Back in the early days of living in Israel, my emotions and grief on Soldiers and Victims of Terror Remembrance Day were dialed way past 11.  On my first Remembrance Day during my kibbutz experience, I cried all day – after having cried the whole day on Holocaust Remembrance Day the week before.  In fact, my Hebrew teacher asked me to leave class because my outpouring of unfiltered emotion was just too much for her to bear.  Later in the evening, we were all supposed to gather at the main field of the kibbutz to have a closing ceremony for this sad day.  More tears and choking back sobs.  Honestly, my love for Israel was quite dehydrating.  And then everyone was waiting, murmuring to each other in quiet conversation, but just standing there.

Five minutes passed.

And then the fireworks began and everyone was laughing and cheering and they headed off to the biggest, wildest party of the year for Independence Day.

What the hell!?!?!

Today, the switch is working better.  I get it.  Soldiers who fought to protect us and this land died so that we could live.  We honor them and then we not only should, but we are obligated to live and celebrate life.  And this week, I stood for the sirens and enjoyed the fireworks.

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Fireworks 2017 – it’s really hard to catch fireworks well with a phone camera

But what about those five minutes?  As I was thinking about it this week, it seems to me that we are always in those five minutes.  We just don’t notice because we are not switching between the depths of despair and the heights of happiness.  It’s pretty exhausting to be at either extreme, but day-to-day life in Israel is that in-between time.

When an Israeli athlete wins a medal and you hear HaTikvah, there’s a swell of emotion – and we are in those five minutes.

When the internet company representative works on your internet just before a holiday and says the Shechechiyanu prayer of thanksgiving (in a Russian accent) when it works – we are in those five minutes.

When you take pride in Israelis helping wounded Syrians or building mobile hospitals in Haiti – we are in those five minutes.

When the insurance representative says “Tfu, tfu, tfu, that you should always be healthy” – we are in those five minutes.

When you hear Hebrew in unexpected places around the world, and you feel suddenly at home – we are in those five minutes.

When the veterinarian who made a house call for your cat takes a few minutes to say afternoon prayers in your living room – we are in those five minutes.

There are no substitutes for Remembrance Days and Independence Day and they’re important, but we ought to remember to declare our Zionism and love of Israel in those in-between times.  We don’t need grand gestures and emotional extremes every day; it’s those ordinary everyday minutes that are the most special if we just take a moment to pay attention.

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The Truth about History

When I was in university many years ago, I studied history.  I didn’t learn a linear collection of facts, I learned feminist history (also known as her-story), varieties of narratives, and that history is complicated.  I was happy to learn history this way and I still believe that it’s valuable and necessary.  The world IS complicated.  Many people have a lot to add to the commonly known facts.  But I think we’ve come to a crisis about history and what is true.

In a short little essay, it’s impossible to deeply explore this idea, so this is no more than a brief consideration about a few things that struck me this week.

I like being in Israel in the springtime and I like the spiritual journey that Israel as a country and as a people takes to get to Independence Day.  It’s no secret that I consider myself a Zionist.  But right around Independence Day there is another commemoration day called Nakba Day.  Nakba is the Arabic word for “catastrophe.”  On May 15, the Palestinian population marks the catastrophe of a Jewish state being created that at the same time created a refugee crisis.

I think people today consider history to be a story that is told about the past.  There are heroes and villains.  It’s not a gigantic leap to suspect that each nation is the hero in its own story.  Even if we accept that not all heroes are perfect and not all villains are totally evil (a common theme in today’s storytelling), we still kind of need to see a cohesive storyline about the events of the past.  We find comfort in cause and effect.  It’s sensible and logical.  Otherwise, it’s all just chaos and nothing matters.  So when we tell ourselves stories about our past, we don’t simply recite facts in chronological order.  We want to be entertained.

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Wikipedia says that postmodernism is “typically defined by an attitude of skepticism or distrust toward grand narratives, ideologies, and various tenets of Enlightenment rationality, including the existence of objective reality and absolute truth, as well as notions of rationality, human nature, and progress.”  We are also told that this is where the idea of relativism comes from, which includes the idea that truth is relative, both yours and mine.

So we circle back to Israel.  According to postmodern history, Independence Day and Nakba Day are two equally true truths.  From the point of view of Israel, its narrative is that five Arab armies attacked and Israel fought a war to give birth to the state.  From the Palestinian point of view, they got kicked out of their homes and a new state was created that had no place for them.  Postmodern theory tells us that with these two equally true truths – and the understanding that there may be more equally true truths – here we have a full picture of history.

The problem for me is that without the idea of an objective truth – tangible evidence and a series of provable facts – to balance each narrative against, then what exactly is true about any narrative?  It’s true to you and therefore it’s true to everyone?  I believe there is a place for narrative, but there also has to be a place to measure that narrative against facts and evidence.  Additionally, if two narratives exist in parallel, do they even have to intertwine or can they stand alone and still be true?

Pulling all these thoughts together, I’m led to a spine-chilling fear.  History is a story.  Our narrative is true.  We are heroes in our own stories. Today, we need to tell our stories in 144 characters or less.  So the one with the shortest, most compelling, most entertaining, most memorable slogans wins history?  After all, the most often repeated narrative becomes the first among equally true truths. I hope that this is not what we have come to.

This short essay is not an attempt to debate the truth of the Nakba or the truth of Independence Day.  There are large sections of many libraries doing that without my input.  The point of this essay is to suggest that all of us have a responsibility to remember that there are many voices that add to our understanding of the past and we should rejoice in the complexity of the world, but if we allow that all truth is relative and subjective, then everything and nothing is true.  Somewhere there is a middle ground where we can have all the voices and a measure of truth.

Soldiers Remembrance Day (Yom HaZikaron)—Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut)

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.

Tradition!

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.)

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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.”