Archive for the 'Holidays' Category

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Dreaming for a Day

So I wrote about Yom HaZikaron and put off writing about Yom HaAtzma’ut (Israeli Independence Day) for almost two weeks. But I really should write about this one. Here goes.

I was walking back home from Yom HaAtzma’ut festivities with a (new) friend at 3 in the morning. Like all Jewish holidays, it started in the evening and would continue until the next evening. I had spent all night in town and I was exhausted but elated. It had been a good night. She, who’d made aliyah several years ago, turned to me and asked, “So what do you think of your first Yom HaAtzma’ut as an oleh?”

I was too jumbled to answer properly. “Ask me again in a few days,” I replied.

But she pressed me. “Come on, what’s your first impression?”

“Ummm….” I hesitated for a moment and thought back on the evening’s events. I thought back to Yom HaZikaron, and how it worked as a lead-in. The siren sounded, and the country became one organism and that organism held its breath for a minute. And this? Well, in some ways, this was the opposite. Lots of noise – people singing, dancing, teenage hooligans crowding the streets and having shaving-cream fights. And the following day? I knew what was coming: barbecues, hikes, and family time. Religious Zionists said a special set of prayers, as the day has both religious and nationalist significance. And most Jews – religious or not – were joining in the festivities in one way or another. Myself, I prayed the evening prayers with Bnei Akiva, the Zionist youth organization that had some influence on my decision to move here. It was really nice. It was right and good and appropriate. Afterwards, they showed us a video, a typical “Israel is great, look at all of our accomplishments” presentation. I found it odd, and I got the sense that those around me just weren’t that interested in it either. Because this all seemed very after-the-fact, very much preaching to the choir. We were there already, living in the Land of Israel, contributing to the State of Israel in one way or another. We didn’t need to be told how great Israel is. And in any case, if we wanted to see something to be impressed by, we could just walk outside, and marvel at everything around us that wasn’t here 60 years ago, and how it’s connected to everything that was here 2000 years ago.

Normally, while watching these presentations, I kind of get a little uncomfortable. Because when you get right down to it, they’re propaganda. They do more than put Israel in a positive light. They don’t mention all the problems we have here and therefore (1) give people a distorted image of Israel (as distortion in the positive direction is still distortion) and (2) prevent people from grappling with the issues more with the aim of resolving them.

But amid everything I was feeling, that uneasiness wasn’t there this time. I thought maybe that we could lie to ourselves just a little bit, just that day. For a moment, I focused on the positives and only the positives. For a moment, the problems – and boy, do we have problems – faded into the background.

For a moment, Israel was perfect.

I think that that moment extended for the rest of the day. I saw a friend later who I had corresponding with about political issues. It was her turn to respond. When she saw me in person, she said, “I haven’t forgotten you. I’m still thinking of what to respond.”

“It’s ok. I don’t want to talk about politics tonight anyway,” I replied, and as I said it, I realized just how true that was.

Then I saw rikudei am. It means “folk dancing,” and the closest thing we have to it in the U.S. is square dancing. But in the areas I come from, at least, it’s unpracticed and obscure. But in Israel, it’s more a part of the fabric of life. And so I found myself in Kikar Safra (Safra square, a large plaza near a bunch of the government buildings in Jerusalem) watching hundreds of people dance in synch. Most people seemed to just know the steps – at least well enough to fake it. It was surreal, like I had just walked into the middle of a musical. But the Israelis didn’t find it the least bit odd. Yes, they realized it was campy and quaint, but no one was bothered by the campiness. Rather, they reveled in it. For a moment, I could see in that group of dancers the children and grandchildren of the chalutzim, the pioneers, who hold a legendary status in Israeli cultural memory, as the original kibbutznikim, who proudly worked the land by day, spoke of a glorious future at night, and joyously danced the hora somewhere in-between. Oh, they had problems themselves aplenty, and in our day, we see some of their legacy in that regard as well. But not the night of Yom HaAtzma’ut. That night, I just saw the legends. And somehow, that felt right.

I turned to my friend to answer, and these thoughts came pouring out much more articulately than I had formulated them in my head. It was something like this:

“I think it’s a day of escapism. Normally, escapism is bad. It prevents us from dealing with the reality as it is, and excuses us from responsibilities we should be facing. But for one day, it’s inspiring. For one day, we let each person see Israel as an ideal, whatever that may be for that individual. For one day, we let people believe that Israel is as it should be, to remind them what it could be.”

And for me, that’s as it should be.

600,000 Flowers

So here we are again, on the eve of another Yom HaZikaron, (Israeli Memorial Day), only this time it’s different. At least, for me, it’s different.

Last time, it was the Other People we were mourning – people from stories, people from history. Even when I was living in a Yeshivat Hesder, where many of my peers were soldiers on active duty, even (and I truly hate to admit it) when those I knew were affected or even killed, I still had a level of detachment. I see that now, because I can feel that falling away. Now these people don’t just include my friends or family. They’re also the neighbors downstairs whose kids make so much noise, the barber who cuts my hair, the strangers I exchange glances with on the bus.

And now, I look at the soldiers still protecting us, mourning their fallen comrades, and realize I could be one of them. Because I recently received a tzav rishon, the first step in the army draft process. Now, I know that at 24 years old (having moved here at 23), I won’t be assigned anything resembling a standard tour of duty, and I might not end up getting drafted at all. But I’m on the list, and when I saw that letter, it affected me more deeply than I’d expected. I mean, I knew it was coming, but like a lot of things in my life lately, seeing it out-there-in-the-world caught me by surprise. There it was. The Israeli army, talking to me, asking me whether I should join them. Israelis are ‘us’ now, not ‘them.’

This morning, I opened the newspaper and saw two stories plastered across the front page: “Israel Remembers the Fallen, page 2,” and “Kassam Rocket hits House in Sderot, page 3.” One can’t help but be struck by the odd juxtaposition. We are remembering those fallen in the past even as we tearfully add the recently killed to the list. I’ve heard it said once that Israel’s problem is that it remembers too much. Past injustices and hatreds and problems don’t go away, because we’re always caught up in what happened, never able to put it behind us. That may be so – I don’t know – but I wonder if we really have a choice. We aren’t just remembering the past; the past is constantly protruding uninvited into the present. We’re putting flowers on the graves of the fallen, while missiles crash into our houses.

And the flowers. 600,000 of them are being laid on graves tomorrow, according to the newspaper. 600,000. A significant number: the population of battle-ready Jewish males that left Egypt for the Land of Israel, and roughly the population of Jews in the very same Land of Israel in 1947, right before the creation of the state. In Ancient Egypt, there was an enemy with an irrational hatred of us, who subjected us to inhuman suffering just because. And we left, the 600,000 men taking their families with them. 3000+ years later, 600,000 Jews faced a similarly implacable enemy. And now, we put 600,000 flowers on 22,305 graves, get up, and continue fighting the same war we’ve been fighting for 60 years, the same war we’ve been fighting for 3000 years, ever since we were forged into a nation in the iron furnace of Egypt.

Put the past behind us? Some days I wish we could. I really do. But it’s simply not possible.

The question here, the real important question, is what do we do on Yom HaZikaron? Because I think this says a lot about us – how we remember, how we mourn. Rather than succumb to the bitterness that, arguably, we have a right to, we hold our ceremonies, and we tell our stories. We honor our fallen and commit ourselves to pursue the values they died fighting for. And we sound a siren, and for a full minute, everything else stops. Everything listens to the siren wailing for potential lost, families torn asunder, and rivers of tears shed. The same siren is sounded on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, but the two couldn’t be more different. True, both are for Jews killed by their enemies, and both are a way of remembering and honoring the departed. But while the deaths in the Holocaust stand silently in defiance of explanation, dragging reason kicking and screaming from the room, the deaths in Israel’s wars are a result of people fighting for Israel. They’re a result of people living lives of meaning, lives of purpose, lives of dedication to something greater than themselves. And when you look at it that way, it’s a bit easier to staunch the flow of bitterness. When you look at it that way, it makes a lot more sense that at the moment that Yom HaZikaron ends, Yom HaAtzma’ut (Israeli Independence Day) begins. We’re not just fighting the wars of the past; we’re also living the dream of the past. The two are linked.

Last night, I heard in great detail, the story of Roi Singer, a doctor who was among the first miliumnikim (reservists) sent into Lebanon last summer. As he told his story, I tried to imagine myself in his shoes, performing surgery under fire, or as one of the soldiers he was treating. It was a weird feeling, to say the least. Yes, I know: I likely won’t see active combat any time soon. But there’s still that letter from the army sitting on my desk. I still have a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday to see if I’m fit for combat. And I’m still going to the enlistment office in a week or so, as ordered by the government. No matter how this turns out in my particular case, that little letter was an important one to me. Here’s the government saying, in its own bureaucratic way, “like it or not, you’re part of our story now, not just a spectator. You can’t stand on the sidelines anymore; we have more than enough people there. It’s time to be an active participant.” I just hope I’m up to the task.