I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, experiencing the Jewish calendar in Israel is definitely one of the most fun/special/meaningful parts of living in Jerusalem this year. The last few weeks included three important holidays: Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom HaAtzmaut. Unlike the rest of the holidays I’ve been experiencing here, these are not Jewish holidays from the Torah (or, as is the case with Hanukkah, the Mishnaic period). Rather, these are new holidays, established in the last 50-65 years. The period of the three holidays lasts 10 days, starting with Yom HaShoah and ending with Yom HaAtzmaut, and the climate of the holidays is one that goes from tragedy and sadness to joy and celebration. Collectively, the time period of the three days is called the Yamim (literally, Days). Interestingly, the 10 days of the Yamim are easily compared with the 10 days of the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur), and many view and understand the Yamim as the ‘High Holidays’ of secular Israel.
Here’s the breakdown…
Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day)
Yom HaShoah was instituted in 1951 and was established as a national holiday at that time. It is an Israeli law that all shops and businesses must close the night that Yom HaShoah begins (all Jewish holidays – and days in general – begin in the evening and conclude at sunset the following day). Having been in Israel all year, I can definitely say that I felt a different mood in the city on Yom HaShoah. The feeling was serious, and even when stores and businesses opened during the day, the holiday was recognized everywhere. For example, most stores have signs recognizing the day as well as yahrzeit (memorial) candles in front:
Note: the full name of the holiday – although it is rarely called as such except on signage – is Yom HaZikaron la’Shoah u’le’Gevurah (Remembrance Day for the Holocaust and its heroes).
At Pardes, we had a special schedule where we had discussions and learning options related to the Holocaust, concluding the day with a student-led memorial ceremony. The most significant part of programming for me was to hear from a Holocaust survivor, Rina:
Rina was a child during the Holocaust, and she survived living in a ghetto as well as multiple concentration camps. She was liberated by Russian soldiers from Bergen-Belsen. Her story was heartbreaking and miraculous and yet another reminder that there are fewer and fewer survivors left to tell their stories. I believe it is so important for every person to hear as many survivors as they can before it is too late. As I heard one survivor say, “you will be the eyewitnesses to the eyewitnesses.”
The most impactful part of the day for me was hearing the siren. At 10am, across the entire country, a siren sounds (a steady wail, as opposed to the in-and-out wail used to indicate a rocket alert) for a solid minute. The moment the siren wails, everyone stands in silence in honor and memory of those who died. For me, it was an incredible moment to see the affect of the siren. I was standing by a busy road, and at the siren’s first sound, cars pulled to an immediate halt and drivers opened their doors and stood at attention next to the vehicle, pedestrians stopped where they were on the sidewalk – nothing moved. In a country that so often seems incredibly chaotic and passionate and lively, the vision was striking. Also, it was very powerful to know that across the entire country of Israel, people were doing the same thing.
I wanted to fully participate in the moment of silence with the siren, so I didn’t take any photos, but prior to the siren starting I took a photo of many people standing on the roof of a building in anticipation of seeing the great communal halt take place below:
Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day):
A week after Yom HaShoah is Yom HaZikaron. Yom HaZikaron is the Israeli Memorial Day to commemorate fallen soldiers and victims of terror in Israel. The day was enacted into law in 1963. As I said above, when Yom HaShoah happened, I felt a noticeable degree of sadness around the city. That feeling, however, was incomparable to the feeling of Yom HaZikaron. The unfortunate reality of the current Jewish state is that essentially no one who lives here hasn’t lost someone they know to war or terror. That reality is on full display on Yom HaZikaron. Unlike Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron has a very particular way of being observed in Israeli society. The hallmarks of Yom HaZikaron commemoration are tekesim (ceremonies). Three tekesim take place related to Yom HaZikaron: one to begin the holiday (done in the evening), one during the day (in the late morning), and one to transition to Yom HaAtzmaut (done around sundown). While Yom HaShoah only has one siren, Yom HaZikaron has two, and the sirens are used as the introduction to the erev (evening) tekes on the first night as well as the morning tekes during the day.
Noah and I went to the opening tekes of Yom HaZikaron at Latrun. Latrun is located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and it was the site of intense battle during Israel’s war for independence in 1948. Today, Latrun is a military museum and memorial. When we arrived to Latrun, there were booths set up for the event where people could look at (and sometimes hold) weapons used by the military:
There are also over 100 tanks on display:
There was a memorial wall listing names of fallen soldiers, and there were flowers available to be placed within the wall:
The tekes was HUGE with a few thousand people. It took place in Latrun’s massive amphitheater:
The tekes focused on the profiles of six individuals who had either been killed during army service or were victims of terror. For each profile, there was a video about the person, a commemorative song, and a testimony from a friend or family member. It was a very moving ceremony, and I thought the videos about the people were an interesting way to help the people attending the tekes feel somewhat more connected to that person.
Although the tekes began with a standing moment of silence in accord with the siren, the experience of this siren felt a bit less powerful to me than the one on Yom HaShoah because – since we were all already gathered for the tekes – it didn’t feel like the same sort of interruption to life.
During Yom HaZikaron day, shops once again indicated the event with signs and candles:
The daytime morning tekesim are structured around schools, although most people who are not schoolage also attend a tekes by going to the school of their children or something that is nearby. Often, part of the tekesim focus on graduates of that school who have been killed during military service (an astounding thing when I try to imagine if every school in America would have fallen graduates to commemorate during Memorial Day). I attended a tekes at the elementary school near to my apartment. Once again, the tekes began with a siren (the second, and final siren of Yom HaZikaron and the Yamim). Seeing hundreds of elementary-age children and families be completely still and silent for the full duration of the siren was a reminder of the significance this symbol carries within Israel.
After the siren, the tekes was a collection of songs, dances, skits, and readings done by the 6th grade class. The tekes lasted about an hour – the first half was devoted to commemoration of Yom HaZikaron and the second half was festive and celebratory in line with Yom HaAtzmaut (which takes place the following day when schools are closed). The message of the transition is very clear: military lives lost enable Israel’s existence/independence.
During the afternoon of Yom HaZikaron, I visited Har Herzl with Pardes. Har Herzl is the site of Israel’s national cemetery as well as the burial site of many important Israeli and Zionist political leaders and figures, including Theodor Herzl who is buried at the mountain’s peak and for whom the area is named. Har Herzl becomes a bit of a pilgrimage site on Yom HaZikaron when thousands of Israelis come to give their respects to fallen soldiers and sit at the gravesides of friends and family.
We saw many people – sometimes in groups and sometimes alone – sitting by the side of a grave, appearing to be permanently there for the day. It was quite a powerful image to so vividly see this important site on memorial day. While at Har Herzl, I kept thinking (as I had also felt many times in the preceding days) that the experience of mourning for soldiers on memorial day is so different in Israel than it is in America. In Israel, where there is a compulsory draft and everyone (less the haredim and Israeli Arabs) serve in the military, there is no divide between the well-educated elite and those who serve in the military. When many Americans don’t have close relationships with army members, memorial day is often transformed into a good day to go to the mall and hit up the holiday sales. Here, where everyone knows people in the army – knows people who have died in the army – this is a day of incredible sadness. Something that highlighted this point for me was seeing Robert Aumann, an Israeli who won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his work in game theory, sitting with family at the graveside of his son who was killed during service. Given the class divide within the military that has resulted in America post-draft, it is hard for me to imagine many American Nobel Prize winners whose sons have been killed in action.
Just as Yom HaZikaron in Israel commemorates victims of terror in addition to fallen soldiers, so does Har Herzl. A section of the cemetery is devoted to a memorial wall listing the names of all those who have died from terror attacks in Israel since 1860.
It was frightening and sad to see the newest names recently etched into the rock – names from the time period in which I’ve been living here.
Originally, I was intending to include my Yom HaAtzmaut experience in this post as well…but this has turned into a very long post already and it feels somehow appropriate to leave the shift to celebration for a separate account and let these two somber days stand on their own.
See my post on Yom HaAtzmaut here.