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Remembering the Fallen

Remembering the Fallen
17.04.2007
The day before Israel’s Independence Day is Yom Ha-zikaron Le-halelay Tsahal (Memorial Day for the Fallen of the Israeli Defense Forces), which this year begins on Sunday night April 22.  Differences in the way America and Israel observe Memorial Day stem from the fact that an enormous percentage of Israelis have experienced personal bereavement for a fallen soldier.  It is no wonder, then, that Memorial Day in Israel is somber and mournful whereas in the States it is the third day of a long holiday weekend.
It is characteristically Jewish to place Memorial Day right before Independence Day (in the States, on the other hand, the two are separated by about five weeks). Whereas in the Catholic tradition (for example) you have the exuberant Mardi Gras before the austere Lent, in Judaism you have the Fast of Esther precede the gaiety of Purim, you have Yom Kippur a few days before Succot (traditionally, the happiest of Jewish holidays), and you have the solemnity of Memorial Day immediately precede the festivities of Independence Day.  Israel thus continues the Jewish tradition of prefacing celebration with a period of somber reflection.
The onset of Israel’s Memorial Day itself follows Jewish tradition in that it occurs with nightfall rather than midnight.  Also in keeping with Jewish tradition, where the eve of a holy day takes on the color of that day, the eve of Memorial Day is similarly weighty--symbolized for me by the fact that the swimming pool and fitness room in Givat Ze’ev will not have afternoon hours on April 22, and late-afternoon activities at the Community Center will also be  canceled on this day.  Whereas Israelis are divided as to whether or not swimming is compatible with Shabbat, almost all expect a public swimming pool to close not only for Memorial Day proper, but also for the hours leading up to this day.  It is interesting here to note too that places of amusement are legally forbidden to open on this evening.
Givat Ze’ev has a community-wide Memorial Day ceremony, especially honoring the fallen relatives of families who live in Givat Ze’ev. (Technical clarification: a person does not have to die in battle in order to be considered an official IDF casualty; if a person dies at any time during the course of his or her military service, whether this be during the initial few years of regular army service or during the sporadic days of reserve duty in the decades afterwards, that person is considered an IDF casualty.  A few years ago, one of the men in Givat Ze’ev was killed in a car accident on his way to reporting for reserve duty.  He is included among the IDF dead.)  Givat Ze’ev’s ceremony takes place beside its own memorial monument (a high, narrow metal sculpture, with water cascading down, looking like a staircase ascending heavenward).   The ceremony begins at 7:50 p.m. with the lowering of the Israeli flag to half mast, the lighting of memorial torches, and the recitation of the Yizkor memorial prayer.  At 8:00 p.m. a siren sounds throughout Israel for one minute, officially ushering in the day.  At the ceremony, besides “routine” speeches from the Mayor of Givat Ze’ev, from the Rabbi of Givat Ze’ev and from an officer representing the IDF, a member of one of Givat Ze’ev’s bereaved families addresses us.  We are also specifically reminded of the lives that were lost, as the faces of Givat Ze’ev’s dead are projected on a screen in front of us and their names read aloud. At a few points in the ceremony, some local youth sing poignant songs about war, loss, and longing (later, after the ceremony, there will be an opportunity for communal singing of such songs).  The ceremony ends with “Hatikvah,” and we sing this song about “being a free people living in our land” with more feeling than we ever do at any other time of the year. 
Businesses are open on Memorial Day, though friends and relatives of the deceased will usually fill the country’s Army Cemeteries with prayers and reminiscences, placing stones and flowers at the graves of their loved ones (parts of some of these cemeteries are only open during this one day of the year).  Schools are open too, with learning focused on the themes of service and patriotism to one’s country, and with a special school assembly.  State radio and television programming  (advertisement-free on this day) tell specific life-stories of some of the soldiers who died,  and victims of terror incidents are also recalled.  At precisely 11:00 am, a siren will sound for two minutes across the country.  During these two minutes it is customary to stop whatever you are doing.  Traffic on Israel’s roads and highways comes to a complete halt during this period, as drivers and passengers all get out of their vehicles and stand silently at attention.  There is an official national ceremony in Jerusalem to mark the end of Memorial Day before the festivities of Independence Day can commence.  When the holiday does begin a short while later, it is with a renewed awareness of the price that Israelis have paid and continue to pay for their independence.
Copyright 2007, Teddy Weinberger