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Typically, Memorial Day in America is spent at sales in the mall, tanning on beaches or seeing the latest blockbuster movie. People often forget that the holiday was established to remember the fallen soldiers of the United States Armed Forces. While veterans, active duty personnel, and families mark the occasion by placing flags at headstones, the vast majority of the country enjoys a vacation courtesy of those who paid the ultimate price for our freedoms to enjoy those vacations. The Israeli equivalent of this day is celebrated much differently.
On Yom Hazikaron, a siren goes off throughout the whole country. People will literally stop their cars on the highway, get out of the vehicle and stand in silence for the duration of the siren’s wail. One of the local TV stations begins to scroll the names of not just those who died while defending their homeland but also by civilians who were killed by terrorists. It takes and entire day to scroll through all the names.
Many citizens do not go to work. Israelis close their businesses and spend the day at the cemeteries. There are over 7 million Jews living in Israel and so many have been affected by loss from a centuries old conflict. Violence does not discriminate when it comes to who is affected. You will see secular Israeli soldiers side by side with the most observant yeshiva students walking together through the cemeteries.
In 2000, I was studying in yeshiva in Israel, as is common for American Jews to do between High school and college. My yeshiva closed for the day and chartered a bus to take us to Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery.
My friends and I drifted off from the main group to explore the memorials and museum exhibits. There were so many people at the cemetery, it seemed as though every grave has a visitor. When we returned to the main group, we found them clustered around a grave with an older gentleman. He was looking for a minyan, a group of ten men required by Jewish law for prayers so he could say the kaddish, the mourner’s prayer for his son. Then we realized that his son was Nachshon Waxman.
Sergeant Nachshon Waxman was a 19 year old soldier who was kidnapped in 1994 by terrorists from Hamas on his way home from a training exercise. Hamas demanded the release of hundreds of captured terrorists from Israeli jails including the founder of Hamas Sheikh Ahmed Yassin who was responsible for dozens of attacks on Israeli civilians. Jews around the world prayed for the safe return of Waxman. I remember my school and my synagogue saying specific prayers for him.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) mounted a rescue operation, but during the mission, Waxman was murdered by his Hamas captors. The IDF Captain of the mission was also killed and 9 of his soldiers were wounded. As students we were crushed by his death and wondered why our prayers were not answered. We were told by our teachers and Rabbis that Waxman’s Rabbi who delivered his eulogy had specifically said that God did listen to our prayers. But unfortunately, just like a father, he sometimes has to say “no”.
Being there by his graveside, being part of the minyan so his father could say the kaddish was an experience that encapsulated the whole day for me. Yom Hazikaron is followed by Yom Ha’Atzmaut Israeli Independence Day. There could not be a bigger emotional rollercoaster or contrast between the two days.
A siren wails again at night and when it concludes the whole country erupts into a party. In Jerusalem, it seems like there is a DJ complete with a dance party on every corner. Shaving cream and plastic hammers are sold on the streets to spray each other with and “bop” people over the heads. I never got a good explanation of why but “armed” myself accordingly and gave as good as I got.
Every type of Jew is represented in the festivities on the streets of Israel. Barbeques are in every backyard and special prayers are said in synagogues to celebrate the day marking Israel’s survival against incredible odds in 1948 of every Arab country on its borders attacking the Jewish State and being repelled by an army of Holocaust survivors, refugees and farmers. It truly is a party like no other. In Jewish schools and synagogues around the world, festivals marking the day are held complete with Israeli music and tons of falafel.
This year in the age of Coronavirus, what will Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut look like? Will the streets, cemeteries, schools and synagogues be empty because of lockdowns? If people are outside, will they be socially distancing and raving to techno music? One thing is for certain, Israel and the Jewish people have been through worse during our thousands of years of existence. Whatever the celebration looks like this year, you can bet that eventually the festive atmosphere will return. The streets of Israel and Jerusalem have been empty before and we have always made it back.