I lived in Israel when I was 12 to 14 years old, and one memory that stands out to me from this two-year period is Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut.
Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror, is a holiday that has deep meaning to all Israelis. Unlike in America, where the wars and suffering seem far off, living in Zichron Yaakov, an Israeli town just south of Haifa, I saw soldiers on a daily basis and had many friends who had lost family members in wars.
On Yom HaZikaron last year I heard many things: songs of mourning, sung by choirs and played on radios; a siren of silence, sounded all across the country for two minutes of remembrance for those who fell for my safety and the safety of everyone around me; and poems and stories written in attempts to capture grief, fear and sadness in words. During the siren, I let my eyes wander across the faces of my classmates, and I took in the range of emotions as they each thought about what the day meant for them.
As an American Jew, I felt both totally immersed in this experience and very irrelevant. No one in my immediate family had ever fought in the Israeli army, and however problematic I felt about some of the army’s actions, I was living in Israel safely as a result of their sacrifice. Additionally, while this day was commemorated very publically in citywide and schoolwide ceremonies and radio and television programs, the emotion was so intimate and vulnerable on a personal, individual level.
At sunset, over the course of a few hours, I could feel the entire country’s atmosphere shifting, like pressure was being released from the air I was breathing. I was reminded of the old Pete Seeger song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” based on the older verses from the book of Kohelet: “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” Well, the country had mourned, and tonight the country would dance, for in Israel, Memorial Day is followed immediately by Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.
That night I joined my family at Zichron Yaakov’s annual Yom HaAtzmaut concert featuring both local teen groups and famous Israeli musicians. It turns out that Israel is a small enough country that even the small towns get some of the biggest names in the country to perform on the biggest night of the year.
After watching a few performers with my family, I joined my friends running around in the park, hitting each other with huge inflatable hammers — an Israeli tradition. Then we all went with Bnei Akiva, the religious youth group, to play paintball in a nearby forest. As we sat eating half-frozen falafel at 2 in the morning between games of paintball, I looked around for a moment, half asleep, and took in my friends whose grandparents, parents or even themselves had immigrated to this tiny country from America, Ethiopia, France, England, Yemen and more. I felt so grateful that all of these Jewish people had somewhere safe to come.