Tonight begins Israel’s Memorial Day. It is sadly a bit unique in the world in that it is truly a day of mourning. There are no barbecues, no sales, no discounts, no playing on the beach. It is somber, it is heartbreaking, it is agonizing. Cafes, restaurants, movie theaters, etc. are all closed – by law and by desire, there are no places of entertainment open.
Even children’s stations run sad stories – interviews with children who have lost siblings or parents feature highly. One station has the simplest of broadcasts – a slow roll of the names of each soldier, each terrorist victim, lost – from the first to the last, most recent death. You watch the names scroll across the screen…each a family devastated and likely still in mourning.
The first year, as a soldier’s mother, I refused to go to the ceremony in our city. It was more than I could bear, to hear the stories of those we had lost in this town, to see parents that I know explain or speak of their sons. I carried with me the terror that I would one day join them. I carry that fear still deep inside. It is a huge stone that weighs my heart and chokes my lungs. I couldn’t find enough balance within me to carry that stone and attend the ceremonies. It was enough, I convinced myself, that my son was serving. I lit a candle at home, watched the national ceremonies, and cried quietly to myself. I begged forgiveness from the families, from the soldiers and victims. My heart is with you, I told them, but not my body. I can’t come this year. Next year, or the year after, just not now.
The next year, I don’t think I went. I really don’t remember. I do know that the Memorial Day after Elie had been in the Gaza War, Elie was home and we went together. It was still hard, but easier because he was there with me. The stories crush you, of the last time the families saw him, of his dreams for the future. Of what he would have been, would have done. Of what he did to save others even as he lost his life, of how the family has tried to cope since.
Last year, after Elie was out and Shmulik was in, I went and I will go this year too. We will sit in the huge park in the center of our city, thousands of people, and listen to the air raid siren that begins the official day of mourning. As is the custom in Judaism, our day begins with the setting of the sun, the evening before, and so the ceremony and siren goes off at 8:00 p.m.
Elie asked me if I wanted to join him on Memorial Day and go to the national military cemetery. There, the next day – tomorrow, the ceremonies will begin at 11:00 a.m. One year, Elie was assigned to stand beside a grave – many of the divisions, including artillery, send a soldier to stand beside the grave of their fallen comrades.
At first, I thought it was a bit cruel – the family comes to visit, and there stands a soldier, healthy and whole from the same division, wearing the same uniform their son once wore. But it is a brilliant thing, as it turns out. It gives the family someone to pamper that day, someone to include in their mourning. They offered Elie drinks and food, they thanked him, they told him about their son.
The main national ceremony, the one broadcast on television, will be held at Mt Herzl cemetery, where Elie will go tomorrow with a friend. I won’t go. I can’t. This, I told Elie, was more than I could handle. I will go tonight, and in the darkness I will mourn with others from here. I’ll light a candle and tomorrow I will stand in silence and listen to the wail of the siren as it cries across our land.
It is a strange and wonderful thing we do each year as we stop and thank those who gave their lives so that we could live here in this land. We will stand tonight and tomorrow, for those who have fallen. It is the least we can do – and the most. But perhaps in this modern world of hustle and bustle, the greatest thanks we give them is in how we as a society remember them, honor them, and mourn for them.
It is a good thing that our hearts break this day – it is, I remind myself often, so much of what defines our country. May the defenders of Israel be blessed and those who have fallen forever be remembered not just for their sacrifice, but for who they were in the short time they lived. May they be remembered and honored and may their families know no more sorrow.