Tonight begins a day that I dreaded every year that I had a son in the standing army of Israel. The first and second year, I gave in to cowardice and allowed myself to stay home rather than join hundreds of thousands of Israelis at ceremonies all over Israel. I felt that I had done enough, in sending a son to the army and didn’t have to torture myself more, endlessly imagining, thinking, worrying. I didn’t have to face this day, this possibility and worse, this reality that so many families face. I crowned myself an ostrich and hid away trying to think of anything but tens of thousands of families suffering, crying, remembering, mourning.
Tonight begins Memorial Day in Israel. I have to admit, sadly, that growing up in America does not prepare you well for an Israeli Memorial Day. There, we would watch the parade of police and soldiers go past our front door. What option did we have when the police came and closed off the main street on which we lived? And besides, it was fun to see the old men marching, the bands go by. Some people would throw candy to us; they waved and smiled. Some years, the mayor drove down the street waving from the window of his car. Each year, we pulled out the chairs or sat on the curb, drank soda and waved to the parade participants.
Other than that, it was a day of sales and picnics and school vacation. It was the start of summer, a sign that the school year was finally over. Memorial Day was the light shining on the short tunnel to summer freedom. And we thought of ourselves as the good ones. We’d gone to the parade, hadn’t we? And we didn’t really know any veterans or men/women serving in the army, so they were, like the wars America fought on some distant shore, remote and unreal.
It’s so different here. There are no parades – parades are happy events, aren’t they? No – no parades here. Memorial Day in Israel is not just about agonizing pain, but about putting that pain in front of the nation. You can’t avoid it, rationalize it away. It is there, for all to see, for all to feel, for all to mourn. It isn’t restricted to “military families” because we are all military families. It’s your son or your husband, your cousin, your father, your uncle. It’s your next door neighbor AND your son. It’s the boy who used to do this AND the kid you always saw doing that. This year, it’s your son; next year, it’s your neighbors until the year or so after that when it’s back to your family.
They go into the army – all these children of ours and we know they don’t all come out. It is the most terrifying of thoughts that plague us all year and cripple us on this day. It is all of us – standing there on one side of this little divider every year – there on that side up in front, the bereaved families, and here behind them and that little dividing wall the city put up to give them their space. We stand supporting them, remembering the boy we also knew just a little. We watch his mother walk up the steps and light the memorial flame and are amazed that she can put one foot in front of the other; that she doesn’t cry out, but as she comes down the steps, there is a break and quietly, she raises her hand and wipes her eyes.
Or it is the work colleague whose son you never met – but you went to the funeral anyway and you went in the week after the funeral to visit and sit there in their home with no words as you listen and see pictures. There and here, it us remembering the boy and the family. We are one in our mourning.
It begins – tonight, exactly at 8:00 p.m. Israelis love to be fashionably late – this one day, there is no late. Everyone is assembled, standing and quiet at a few seconds to 8:00 p.m. They announce the ceremony will begin after the siren; please stand. And so thousands around me will stand and bow their heads. And then the siren begins.
It cries, it reaches deep into your heart and pulls out the tears. It screams across the land as everyone stands at attention. Mothers with sons about to go in the army fill their minds with the simple prayer, “Please God, please, please, please don’t ever let me be sitting in that area up there in the front. Please, please watch over him, keep him safe. Please, please, I beg you. Please.” Over and over again as the siren wails, more frantic as you know time is running out. It’s the only thought. A mother with more than one son or a son-in-law too will add his name; her name;. A wife will think of her husband and pray – all over Israel. Please, God, let this not come to him or her this year, next year, ever. It is all too human to be selfish and pray this way in those moments.
A mother with a child in the army, in a combat unit, in danger, is even more frantic – if she has the courage to even attend and listen. You know you should be thinking about them…but really, so much of the time your thoughts turn to your own. I didn’t have the courage the first year. I can say that now and feel a bit of shame.I couldn’t. I’m not sure I went the second year either. I think it was only the third year, after Elie had been in the war…and he was with me, that I was able to go. And even then, my thoughts were on Elie. “Please, God – keep him safe. Thank you. Thank you for watching over him. Please keep him safe.”
And there were prayers for Yaakov before Elie, and Chaim and Shmulik after him. And now, tonight, I’ll say a prayer for B. – Lauren’s cousin and for the two boys I know from our neighborhood and tonight, this time, I’ll also remember Tonight, I’ll go and listen to the stories – of brothers from our city who have fallen; of fathers lost; of husbands who will never return.
Each is an agonizing tale of a special person, so loved, so missed. I’ll return home to a memorial candle I will have lit in the corner of the room that will burn all of the 24 hours we are in mourning. The restaurants are all closed; the movie theaters, entertainment centers. We do not allow one family to mourn while others go about their lives. In the middle of the work day – at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday – the siren will sound again. Traffic will come to a stop. (see the video below)
People will get out of their cars in the middle of the highway and stand; others will have already pulled to the side with their radios on. Wherever they are, whatever they are doing – they stop and stand. Each will listen, stand, think, and many will be praying, “please God, please, not this one, not another – let those be the last soldiers we ever lose.” Twenty two thousand, nine hundred and ninety three.
There is a television station that will list each of the names – all 22,993 soldiers that have died for Israel, another 2,477 victims of terror attacks – all for Israel, for what we have built here in our land. If you want to understand Israel – understand our memorial day. Understand the pain we all feel on this day. Israel is not a nation like other nations. Only Israel would release over 1,000 to get back the one. This year, Aviva and Noam Shalit finally have the answer – no, they will not be sitting on the other side of the small dividing wall because of Gilad.
So – if you want to understand Israel – watch the video below. Understand that this happens all over Israel – tonight at 8:00 p.m. and again tomorrow morning. And then, I’ll tell you one more amazing thing about Israel – though I’ll write more about this next. As deeply as we mourn tonight, as much as we reach into our hearts and pour out our tears…with the same determination – we begin, tomorrow night, to celebrate. We will dance in the streets, cheer and laugh. The day after we thank our veterans and those who sacrificed their lives for us – we will celebrate the gift they gave us. Memorial Day in Israel leads directly into Independence Day. It is one of the most amazing facts of Israeli life. It is so right.
We cannot celebrate until we remember and thank them because without them, we would not be here. So tonight, light a candle in their memory, as I will. Remember them and thank them.
To the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces…