At precisely 11:00, a siren wail rose in the distance; seconds later another, closer, joined the chorus. We were halfway down Machane Yehuda, the crowded, bustling vegetable market on the hill at Yafo Street, and everything froze. Pedestrians slowed to a stop and lowered their heads: Hasidim, nuns, street urchins and babushkas alike. For a moment, a woman at the dried fruit stand chattered to her neighbor before the fruitseller scolded her in hushed tones. Memorial Day here is different than it is back home.
I’d wanted to be here, amid the crowd for this moment, and the silence of the street, the wail of the siren and frozen-in-time snapshot of the street drove the observance home for me. Here in Israel, as Gershon had told us, Memorial Day wasn’t just a shopping holiday. To most people back home, the military is a cloistered group: people we don’t know, doing their job far away. Very few of us have lived through, let alone fought in a war where the continued existence of their country, their home, was ever in question. Here? Most of the people around us in the market have lost someone. Many of them remember 1967, when Nasser swore to drive them into the sea. Many remember 1973, when the sirens wailed on Yom Kippur, and explosions filled the city and sky above it. Memorial Day is personal in Israel.
This week, the week between Yom haShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Yom haAtzma’ut – Independence Day, feels like a Jewish version of the Christian Easter. You begin with a great loss, mark the days in between, remember the agonies, then celebrate the transcendance.
Now we’re headed north along the coast, to Kibbutz Ga’ton. My cousin Gili is driving and her brother Tomer is in the right seat. Devon and I are sharing the back with Jeremiah, Gili’s “long-term loaner” dog. We catch up as she drives, trying desperately not to ask us anything about our trip, because she knows her parents are going to want to ask the same questions.
The Israel we’re seeing from the highway is a different one than we saw, walking the streets of Jerusalem: it’s modern, hip and commercial. Except for the billboards of Theodor Hertzl looking stern (“He always looks stern – I think he must not have been a lot of fun to be around”), we could be in Santa Monica, cruising Interstate 10.
Gili explains the plan for the evening to us: her youngest brother Raviv, less than a year out of the army, is already up at Gaaton at her parent’s house. Her mother Elana was born there; father Yossi moved to the kibbutz as an idealistic twenty-something after his own mandatory three years in the army and met the young beauty. We’ll have dinner with Yossi, Elana and the three “kids”, then go outside at 8:00, to the highest point in Gaaton, to mark the transition from somber memorial to celebration of independence. Yossi will read a short speech to the couple hundred assembled residents, the flag will be raised from half-mast to full, then we’d all sing while the kibbutz high schoolers lit the place up with homemade fireworks.
“Fireworks” in this case has a special local meaning: in addition to the conventional light-a-fuse-and-and-they-rocket-into-the-sky-kind, Gaaton teenagers had built a dozen or so ten-foot high wire-framed symbols and slogans wrapped in gasoline-soaked rags, tensioned in place with metal cable and nylon ropes. When things get sufficiently hot, the nylon ropes melt, setting the flaming star of David spinning, unfolding a hidden message, or releasing the six foot flaming arrow to slide down its metal guide and light another gas-soaked frame reading “I [heart] Israel”. Enormous, careening metal walls of flame, constructed by high school kids – Rube Goldberg on fire. What could possibly go wrong?
Still, it played out pretty much as Gili described – a wonderful family meal. In spite of Elana’s protestations that she doesn’t know how to cook, she’d prepared a delicious Israeli feast of soup, three kinds of salad, local olives, bananas, avocados and apples. Locally raised chicken and… oh, a bunch of other stuff that I just couldn’t stop eating. Followed by homemade apple pie and dense, sweet, addictive poppyseed cake.
By the time we went out, the crowd had gathered, and a bonfire lit the field. Yossi, on a small stage, spoke of the soldiers who gave their lives for the country. Another resident read a poem. We sang Hatikva, and the flag was raised. Then the teenagers ran wild with long flaming torches, setting everything on fire.
Back inside, taking on another bowl of fruit and slice of pie, we talked about family, about Israel, about independence and the personal stories behind Memorial Day. Yossi and I were sitting a little apart from the others when he looked over at me and asked “Did Tami (my mother) ever tell you my secret?” No, she hadn’t – what secret? The way he was smiling, I thought I was about to be let in on some family of mischief. I was wrong.
Remember how I said everyone here remembered the Yom Kippur war? That evening back in 1973, Yossi had been serving on his monthly reserve time at a post on the Suez Canal. The religious members of the unit had been relieved for the holiday, and only a skeleton crew was on duty when hundreds of Egyptian troops attacked and overran the base. Most of his crew was killed that night and Yossi, badly injured, was captured with nine others. He was held in solitary confinement for questioning. No one knew where he was for over a month until the Red Cross got access, took his name and serial number and allowed him to sign a “capture card” as proof of life to be delivered back to the Israelis. After he was released in a prisoner exchange, it took over a year of operations to put him back together.
He told me this with a smile, somewhat embarrassed at the fact. He said back then, it was an embarrassing thing to be captured. But he was so badly hurt, and there were so many Egyptians – what else could he do? I thought about his question and realized that I, in my pampered middle-American upbringing, was supremely unqualified to answer that question. And honestly – I can’t say that I know anyone back home who could field it from a position of personal experience. But here? Here, everyone understood. And that’s why Yom Hazikaron – Memorial Day – is not a shopping holiday in Israel.