Remembering Our Fallen Heroes || Living in a Foreign Language

A siren began to wail overhead. We stopped in our tracks, silent, standing at attention. The cars stopped, one by one. Doors opened and the people stood up and got out of their cars, their attention focused on the blazing siren cutting through the morning air.

I’m sure you’ve seen the videos; this same scene repeated every year, once on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust remembrance day) and twice on Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers). The entire country comes to a standstill for a minute, stopping everything to pay their respect to those that have died.

Yom HaShoah is actually called Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah, or Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. In Israel, the sanctity of the day and the existence of the modern state of Israel are not separated as they often are outside of Israel. To an Israeli, it is unfathomable not to sing Eli Eli (My God, My God), a song written by Hannah Senesh while living in Caesarea, about the ocean, as part of a Yom HaShoah ceremony. While Hannah would eventually be tortured to death after being captured while paratrooping in WWII in Nazi occupied territory, the song itself has nothing to do with the Shoah per se. It does however point to the fact that in Israel, resistance and the heroism of individuals, along with the existence of a modern state to prevent such things from occurring again, is as much of a narrative (if not more so) that is told, as is the story of the gas chambers and death squads.

A week later, Israel celebrates Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Remembrance Day and Independence Day. Yom Hazikaron begins with a siren in the evening, followed by many different ceremonies of remembrance throughout the country. I attended a ceremony at the Jerusalem City Hall, where hundreds of people showed up to sit on the ground on a chilly night, while Israeli musicians performed famous songs about death and war with minimal instrumentation and no applause. It was a somber mood, but powerful when all the participants joined together in song. The day of remembrance continues the next day with a second siren at 11:00am, followed by more remembrance ceremonies throughout the city.

While my Yeshiva had its own programming and then joined Gymnasia Rechavia for their ceremony, I decided instead to visit Har Herzl, Israel’s military cemetery. I got there around 10:30am, before the morning siren, and found my way to the grave of my hero, Michael Levin. The entire cemetery was packed; thousands of people, many with personal connections to victims but even more who were there just to support the families of the fallen and to pay their respects, filled the mountainside. Just before 11, a hush fell over the crowd. Moments later, the siren began to wail, two minutes of piercing anguish for an entire country that shatters internally with every war and with every death. Here I was, standing by the graves of those for whom the day was created. Here I was, raising up the names of those who died defending this little miraculous country of ours. We stood there, not in thought, but just present in the moment, painfully aware of our own mortality, and grateful that we could even be standing there.

Following the siren, the Mourners Kaddish and El Malei Rachamim, the prayer for the remembrance of IDF soldiers that have fallen in war, were recited. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and President Rivlin spoke, taking off their politician hats and putting on their human hats, lending further meaning to the lives that have been lost. To Americans, the phenomenon of Yom Hazikaron may seem quite strange, but to Israelis, every life that is lost is a brother, a cousin, or a neighbor. Every life is taken personally, and every sacrifice felt and appreciated. We are here today because of them.

Then comes the transition, a strange and forced transition from a day of mourning to a day of partying, from a day of being in the moment to a day of celebrating our improbable existence and our even more improbable statehood. It’s a day much more like Memorial Day in America, filled with barbecues and concerts. How can one go from mourning to ecstasy so quickly?

I believe the answer lies in the narrative that we choose to tell. In Israel, for a week we sit in pain and brokenness. We become deeply aware of the pain and suffering of our people. But just like on Pesach when we set out to write a new narrative for our people—transforming one of slavery and oppression to one of freedom—so to do the Israeli people sit in the old narrative, internalizing the feeling brought out by these intense days, and then transforming their story into freedom and statehood. The importance of Yom Ha’atzmaut is that it gives us a chance to rewrite the narrative we tell of our freedom.

As the first siren to mark the beginning of Yom Hazikaron went off, I stood watching a group of kids that were playing soccer stop playing and stand in silence. Watching this scene, I couldn’t help but speculate over what might going through their heads. “Is this my future? Could one day this siren be for me?” In that moment, I began to pray. May there be a day soon in which children can play unencumbered by the shadow of the army, and may the day of Yom Hazikaron come to be an abstract concept to them, a remembrance of those that died dozens of years of ago, not a remembrance of their classmates. May we love, and may we have peace. Amen.