Yom HaZikaron, When You’re Far Away

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18 Apr 2018

They call it a Yom Kashe in Israel. A difficult day.

Across the country, ceremonies are memorializing the stories of chayalim (soldiers) who lost their lives fighting for the state, and the victims of terror. The newspaper is replete with these stories, and moving videos stream across Whatsapp and other forms of social media. The siren brings the country to a halt twice, once at night, once at midmorning. When there are tears in someone’s eyes, no one asks why.

It’s a hard and incredibly personal day in Israel.

In America, it’s also a hard day. But for slightly different reasons.

The last three years, I’ve been blessed to spend Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut in Israel with my 8th grade class. We attended a tekes (ceremony) at night and got out of our van at the 11am siren and stood quietly, at attention. We visited Har Herzl and stood at graves listening to stories, some as old as Israel’s state, some fresh from this past year. Roi Klein, who jumped on a grenade to save his unit, screaming a Shema Yisrael that made time stand still before the grenade exploded, killing the young father. Michael Levin, the young American who wanted so badly to enlist in the IDF that he climbed on top of a dumpster to sneak into the enlistment office, pushing his way into the army, despite not having received papers. He was killed in Lebanon in 2006. We visited the wall that lists the names of victims of terror and I put my finger on the names I recognized: my 8th grade teacher, Shoshana (Hayman) Greenbaum who was killed in the Sbarro’s bombing of 2001, Nava Applebaum, a bride forever, killed with her father before her wedding in a terrorist attack in 2003, the three boys who were kidnapped and killed, but united the Jewish people in a way that nothing has since.

Grief is an emotion that needs an outlet, and just like Judaism has shiva, shloshim and then a yahrzeit to allow for that grief, Yom HaZikaron is an important day to allow a pained nation that has suffered so much to grieve. The communal mourning shows those who have personally lost how much the nation cares for every one of its own. While no one can truly imagine the pain of a bereaved family; the orphaned children, the wives bereft of husbands, the loss a child, I imagine there’s some small comfort in knowing that every personal loss is also felt as a communal loss.

This year, I am in America on this date, though my heart and my mind are not. And when people see tears in my eyes as I obsessively watch clip after clip which tell the stories of homes with empty chairs that will never be refilled, of children who imagine the turn of a door handle and their father entering the room as he once did, I am asked, “what’s wrong”? I am desperate to connect. Life doesn’t stop here, not at 11am at a siren which doesn’t ring or even for a moment, at all. People are laughing like normal and even at our Jewish Day School where I work, we are busy preparing for tomorrow’s Yom HaAtzmaut program. It’s a regular day. I am hungry for that outlet to grieve, for that sense of communal mourning.

Because even though I don’t live in Israel, these soldiers fell for my state. As Miriam Peretz, recipient of this year’s Israel Prize and whose two sons fell in battle said, “Israel is my home, it is your home. It is home for all the generations to come. When my children went to war, they carried on their backs their soldiers’ knapsacks. And in these knapsacks, they carried you too”.

Being in America on Yom HaZikaron leads to tremendous longing to be in Israel, a country with citizens not known for their tact, but who show a tremendous sensitivity for each other. What other country actually stops short for two minutes, twice in one week- on one date to remember six million they never knew and on the second, to remember those who gave their lives so they can live?

Every year, when we plan our school’s Israel trip, there’s always a debate between myself and my Israeli teachers about what we should do on the day of Yom HaZikaron. They insist we go to a tekes, a ceremony. I argue that instead, we need to stop by an overlook of the highway so the students can observe how the country comes to a pause. “Why”, they ask me, “What’s the big deal”. They are so used to it, they don’t understand how powerful it is to an American, whose culture celebrates Memorial Day by having a barbecue and going to the beach. They can’t understand how touching it is to me that each year, the newspapers publish the exact number of how many soldiers have fallen for Israel. How many victims of terror. Each unique life in Israel is not a number, it’s another reason to mourn. Every time the number rises, it’s a new and fresh pain.

And perhaps because of the sensitivity of Yom HaZikaron and its juxtaposition to Yom HaAtzmaut, celebrating Israel’s independence is all the more moving in Israel. It is amazing to observe the eruption of joy as the sadness of Yom HaZikaron ebbs into the joy of Yom HaAtzmaut. As Har Herzl transforms from ground zero of mourning to a stage for a celebration of the state. As one of my students noted in amazement last year, to observe Israel celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, you get the feeling that they don’t take each year of independence for granted, but celebrate anew the victory over whatever threat they faced this past year. I miss the genuine and simple excitement, the flapping of the blue and white flags that cover every car mirror, every building, that hang from every house and street.

The week of the “Yoms” is a time that drives those of us whose hearts are longing to be in Israel to work to make the dream a reality. But until that dream comes into fruition, it is a lonely time to be away from where my heart, and my people reside.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.