By Gili and Uri Hershkovitz
It’s a too-hot April morning. A minute before 11 am. You are standing in a crowded plaza in the middle of the cemetery waiting, dreading. There’s a stillness, a silence unlike anything you can express. It is like there’s a hidden spectator that decided to mute the scene on his T.V. Not even the background noises that you are used to register in your brain. Then is starts – A siren wailing over your head, reverberating into your core. The plaza is suddenly filled with mannequins shaped into the same position: head down, body taut, eyes filled with sorrow.
After what seems like forever, the wailing slowly dies down. Cars remember how to drive through the street again, soldiers return to their duty, factory workers turn on their machines, and children sit down at their desks for the rest of the lesson. You start the trying process of recollecting the lives lost through the families and friends that still remember, even though it was two decades ago.
They still come – friends from the army, who share all the ridiculous stuff they remember doing. Family that still has fading photos they take out every so often so that the pain never gets too dull. Sometimes a commanding officer or a new recruit from the same unit, who want to hear about the person that is no longer there or offer condolences for a loss that cannot be described.
This is Yom Hazikaron in Israel. It’s a day where we remember the fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of terrorism, a day etched into the collective heart and mind of a nation. Music stations have a special playlist with songs you never hear on “regular” days, nothing funny is on TV, and flowers are sold out for all the wrong reasons. Uri’s father was a commanding officer in the Israeli paratroopers for many years, and to this day, Uri goes with him every year without fail to meet the families of soldiers who died fighting for a country they can call their own. Only once in his life did Uri’s father miss this event, when he was stuck in Europe after a volcano erupted in an ash cloud over Iceland in 2010, and he is still pained by missing it today. It really is a solemn day unlike anything else in the Israeli calendar.
Then, only a few hours later, everything changes. It’s like a magic spell was cast, and suddenly the pain and bitterness are gone and are replaced with rejoicing. Yom Ha’atzmaut — Israel’s Independence Day, which starts on the evening that follows Yom Hazikaron is upon us, and we are mandated to drink, laugh, celebrate and enjoy the fireworks. Kids run down the streets with spray can full of biodegradable foam and hammer-shaped inflatables, food carts roll into every corner of the venues especially outfitted for the occasion, and the whole town is out being merry. If you didn’t come early and find a parking spot several miles away, you’re out of luck, and you may as well find a nice hill somewhere and enjoy the show.
This transition is amazing and sometimes scary. How can we go from such solemnity to merriment? Many parents who have lost children voice an opinion that it’s just too much to handle emotionally, and many have called Israel a “bipolar nation” with regard to this seemingly incomprehensible transition, but in our eyes it is no less than extraordinary. As we go to gravesites to visit our deceased family every year, we find ourselves turning to the things that made us the happiest when they were there, turning the bitter occasion into a chance to appreciate what we have and to call up memories that are precious. We want to believe that this is how they would want to be remembered and that they would want us to be happy. Maybe by celebrating, we can help deal with the loss of so many.
It is also a celebration of loss that was not in vain. As we fully open ourselves to the magnitude of the loss, we also allow ourselves to bask in the immensity of the achievement that came with such a heavy cost. Israel is country! A nation among nations! For many centuries, people did not believe this day will come anytime soon. For many decades, we lived on the verge of war with overwhelming odds, and yet we’re still here. In a land that means so much to us and our history, and we can enjoy it to the fullest only because we understand what it cost us to get to this place. A celebration that does not forget the people who lived to make a dream come true. This is the essence of Yom Ha’atamaut.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our introspective look into “The Yoms” coming up and their meaning for the people of Israel! We look forward to seeing you at our Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut events coming up on April 15 and April 22.
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