Inside The Israeli High Holidays

JERUSALEM – It was surreal; the elderly French man reminded me of my grandfather.

Bald and small, with the kind and worn face of a beardless Polish Jew, as if from a sentimental photo of Warsaw. Slightly hunched over, quick-witted and intelligent, hard of hearing, and humorous even as he told of hiding from the Nazis in France.

My grandfather was a physically broader person and a more boisterous personality, though crushed by dementia in the years leading up to his death. Where Henri had survived the Holocaust by hiding, my grandfather survived as a teenager protected, barely, by the Soviet Army.

Still, Henri felt like family.

Speaking in English to the gathered students of the Conservative Yeshiva, in Jerusalem, Henri had flown in from France specifically to tell his story before Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, enveloped Israel at nightfall. As a Jewish child in France, he had been hidden away with his parents in a variety of Christian and partisan-protected towns, eventually coming face to face with a prominent Nazi whose expertise was exposing, and killing, Jews in hiding.

It was during a playdate with the Nazi’s son, who was a classmate for some time. Henri said he wasn’t Jewish and never went back to the house.

After surviving the Second World War, Henri stayed in France, became a doctor, and in his elderly age studied for a time at the Conservative Yeshiva and learned Hebrew. In this way, his visit to the yeshiva was not just a journey to disturbing memories, but a way to say hello to old teachers.

Henri spoke with us and answered questions for about an hour and a half. But eventually, he sighed, smiled softly, and either said “okay, I’m done,” or, “I think that’s enough.”

I don’t fully remember. It was surreal.

Beyond Holy

In America, the High Holidays of Judaism are Rosh Hashanah (the new year), Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), Sukkot (the harvest celebration), and Simchat Torah (completing the Torah reading cycle), which happen in roughly the same month period.

In Israel, the holiest of days are Yom HaShoah (Holocaust remembrance day), Yom HaZikaron (Memorial day for soldiers and victims of terrorism), and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence day), which happen nearly instantaneously over the course of two weeks, with Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut on consecutive days.

Of course, many American Jews celebrate the Israeli cycle, but as with anything Israeli, it’s never the same as experiencing it here.

The days are meaningful in and of themselves, but also highlight a core narrative of Israel: The Holocaust is the price of not having a Jewish state, showing the necessity for Israel’s existence. The death of soldiers and civilians in war and terror attacks is the unavoidable price of having a Jewish state, one that can’t be forgotten. And ultimately, though the state is deeply flawed, we celebrate the fact that we have one, against all odds.

For those outside of mainstream modern Zionism, this progression feels like nationalistic propaganda. Many Israelis are also conflicted about this use of historical memory in a country that actively despised Holocaust survivors in its early years.

But for the majority of Israelis (and many Jews outside of Israel), the narrative of the Israeli High Holidays is still fundamentally true; Israel’s existence is necessary as a historical fact, and we celebrate that existence.

The days, like everything else in Israel, are deeply personal, highly political, and often contradictory. Many Holocaust survivors in Israel live in utter poverty, unable to financially support themselves or pay for much-needed medication. And yet, Yom HaShoah. A day that I spent mostly in Russian, listening to my favorite Soviet bards and thinking of the Jews of Eastern Europe, alienated from the Americans around me.

Tel Aviv hosted an over 8,000 people strong Israeli-Palestinian memorial event on Yom HaZikaron to jointly commemorate death on both sides. Protesters spat on people outside of the venue and called for “death to Arabs.” In Jerusalem, among many things, an official state memorial ceremony was held at the Western Wall, after which tourists and visitors took photos while standing and laughing behind the podium used by Reuvin Rivlin, Israel’s president.

In the night, and later the next day on Mount Herzl (the official military cemetery) and across the country, Israelis held one another or sat at graves alone.

And Yom HaZikaron faded directly into celebrating Israel’s Independence, with cookouts in parks, fireworks that sound like bombs (it amazes me that Israel hasn’t banned fireworks due to the country’s war trauma), and conflicting opinion articles about celebrating Israel or ignoring the celebration because of the situation in the Palestinian territories.

It is insane. And wholly, entirely Israeli.

On The Sidelines

On Yom HaShoah, I wished I was with family, or more broadly, with Jews who had immigrated from the Soviet Union. Something more my own, neither Israeli nor American, seemingly the only two options I was surrounded by. But I was alone.

And politically I was disgusted when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent his Yom HaShoah speech on a tirade against Iran. Yes, Iran is a threat to Israel. But on a day of commemorating the Holocaust, maybe a prime minister who cozies up to Holocaust revisionists like Hungarian leader Viktor Orban would have something a little more relevant to say.

Then came a near war between Israel and Hamas, the terror group controlling the Gaza Strip, on Saturday.

A friend, who is a French rabbinical student, and I were talking about his 2-year-old daughter in Paris, and the many firsts of fatherhood, on Saturday evening. Shabbat hadn’t ended yet, so we didn’t really know about the rockets being fired from Gaza.

“You know, I think that very soon the right-wing will be in power in France,” I remember him saying suddenly. This rabbinical student, though intent on serving his community in Paris, has little optimism about the future of French Jewry in a sea of anti-Semitism.

Inevitably, I thought of the recent synagogue shooting in Poway, California. The new normal.

It really does seem like Israel is the only safe place for Jews in the world, I responded. “Really?” he said. “You really think here is safe for Jews? With rockets, and war every few years?”

Shabbat ended, and an hour later I was glued to my phone, and the twitter feeds of Israeli journalists, following every drum of war.

Eventually, I decided that even Israel wasn’t a case of Jews being safe. Nowhere in the world is safe. But there are places where Jews ultimately refuse to leave after generations of displacement. And Israel is simply the most prominent of these places.

On Yom HaZikaron, I saw the commemorative events, films, concerts, and speeches. The price of refusing to leave – beyond most non-Israelis. A sense of loss and emotion that really only clicks for those who are Israeli. Who has served in the army. Known friends who have died. Grown up in the fabric of society traumatized by war and terrorism.

The rest of us non-Israelis were just looking through opaque glass. Emotional? Yes. Understanding? Not quite. I even heard some Americans shocked at the idea that the Mourner’s Kaddish, a religious prayer, could be said at a public high school memorial ceremony. What about the separation of religion and state, they asked? In Israel, on that day, they missed the point.

But the next day, on Yom HaAtzmaut, we grilled and partied like everybody else, as if nothing had happened the past two weeks.

It was like Henri and my grandfather. A real moment, hard to explain, but really, truly, just entirely surreal.