Ever since I moved to the United States, I have visited Israel, my homeland, about twice a year. Over the years, I’ve managed to experience each and every Jewish holiday there. For some reason, though, I always missed Israel Independence Day.
Finally, due to a family simcha, I landed in Tel Aviv a few days before Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, which follows Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) for the fallen in Israel’s defense. I stayed with my older brother in Tel Aviv, as I usually do when I go home.
His wife, Shoshana, has a brother and sister. Both are bereaved parents who each lost a son in the wars. So when my brother asked me to join them for the memorial service for fallen IDF soldiers in Herzliya, where his brother-in-law lives, I agreed.
Such ceremonies take place throughout the country, in cities, towns, and kibbutzim. It begins with a mourning siren at 8 p.m. precisely. As we traveled from Tel Aviv, I had no concept how powerful an emotional experience I was about to have.
My brother parked the car and we made our way to an expansive vista. Simple chairs stood in long rows in front of the stage. It was 7:40 p.m. and the place filled up quickly. I looked around, checking out the crowd. This was not the audience I might see at the symphony, or even a pop concert. The crowd assembled was diverse: Ashkenazi, Sefardi, secular, Orthodox.
The common denominator was bereavement.
The atmosphere was also different – restraint laced with mutual respect. Everyone conversed quietly.
Two minutes before eight, the gathered began to rise. All conversations stopped. A complete silence fell on the place. The quiet was palpable.
Even though I was ready for the siren, it still jolted me. Maybe it was because of the special occasion, the perfect silence that preceded it, or perhaps because it was my first time after many years, the siren sounded different. It made me shiver; the shrill permeated every pore, every organ of my body. Slowly, I looked around. Some stood in a tense silence; others were downcast. Some murmured psalms and others stood straight with eyes shut or gazing straight ahead. I noted tears in some eyes.
Suddenly, a woman in the row in front of me burst out in a choked sob. The siren itself began sounding like the wail of the bereaved mother. I shivered.
As the siren died down, the assembled sat. The time for the reading of the names of those who had fallen in the wars of Israel had come. There appeared on two screens on either side of us, pictures of the soldiers, the dates of their birth and death beneath them.
Most of the images were young with bright smiles. One shot of a handsome youngster with black eyes and pure white teeth, appeared on the screen. From behind me burst a cry, “My baby! Oh my baby!”
I turned around slowly. Two rows behind me, I saw an elderly Yemenite woman striking her palms and shaking back and forth. According to the dates, her son fell in the Yom Kippur War. He was 23. Had he lived, he could already be a grandpa. And here his elderly mother still wailed for the son taken in his prime. Again, tears welled in my eyes.
Name followed name, picture chased picture. A bitter gasp followed by an anguished cry, as a young woman called the name of the deceased again and again, and an elderly man sitting next to her, held her tight. Tears continued to well in my eyes. A lump rose in my throat. I managed to swallow it. I went through this over and over again during the ceremony.
My brother, who sat next to me, looked over at me, but he didn’t comment. The picture of my sister-in-law’s nephew appeared. I didn’t know him well, but I remembered the words of my brother when he called me after the funeral. He told me how the grandmother had yelled out bitterly: “Why, God? Why do you take my grandchildren? Take me!”
The pictures of the two cousins, the Herzlian and the Jerusalemite, both hang in the bereaved families’ homes. Their images will never age.
As I wept, my back trembled. A kind person behind me noticed and placed a consoling hand on my shoulder. I didn’t personally know a single one of the fallen whose pictures continued to appear, but I knew who they were: friends from the neighborhood, from school, from boy scouts, from the army. They were my fathers, uncles, cousins, my brothers, heroes.
When the ceremony ended, I rose from my seat and walked amid the crowd. I didn’t stand out. I wasn’t the only one with red eyes. Suddenly, I noticed a startling phenomenon. To my right and left, I saw bereaved families greeting with joy and love friends in sorrow. They exchanged hugs and asked one another how their year went. It dawned on me that they met each year at this ceremony, like a reunion. The atmosphere turned upbeat, freer, as people were laughing and sharing stories.
My brother popped next to me. “I see that the years in the diaspora haven’t corrupted your sense of solidarity and identity.” I nodded without speaking.
“May the memory of the fallen be for a blessing,” he continued. “Yet, we should not forget that the total number of IDF fallen in all Israel’s wars, equals approximately the number of martyrs in the Holocaust that were led to the gas chambers of Auschwitz every two-three days.”
A siren concluded the observance of the Memorial Day the next day at 11 a.m. Unlike the one that opened Memorial Day, this one sounded more soothing. I was on Jeremiah Street in Tel Aviv. Merchants stood at the doors of their stores, drivers by their cars and pedestrians on the sidewalks. They all stood at attention, honoring those who are no longer with us.
Later, I walked the length of the boardwalk. Toward me walked an ultra-orthodox man – black hat, black coat, peyos and a beard. Among the Haredim, there are many who do not honor the Day of Independence. Still emotional, my impulse overcame my sense of restraint.
“Say, did you stand at attention when the siren sounded?” I asked.
He stopped and gave me a piercing look. With a strong and confident voice he asked me: “How long did you serve in the IDF?”
“Me? Well, like everybody else, the regular military service.”
“Just to let you know, I served in the Golani Brigade and I lost comrades in arms. After 16 years, I retired at the rank of colonel. Of course I did, during the siren!”
Embarrassed, I jumped to attention and my hand snapped to my forehead. “Sir, I salute you!”
What irony! Of all the tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, I fell upon a Golani commander who had become religious. A fighter who gave of himself many times what I had given.
(Moshe Ben-David lives in Louisville.)