After the Siren: Yom Hazikaron and Gratitude

Israel has two major memorial days: Yom Hazikaron—the remembrance day for fallen soldiers of Israel and Israeli terror victims—and Yom Hashoah Vehagevurah, Holocaust and Heroism memorial day. One is a reminder of the cost of having a Jewish State; the other is a reminder of the cost of not having it.

If you’ve ever spent Yom Hazikaron in Israel, you know how special a day it is—how far from the American Memorial Day that has become mainly an opportunity to catch a bargain in retail sales. No other memorial day in the world feels quite like Yom Hazikaron. The music on the radio is pensive and downbeat; the TV broadcasts the more than 23,000 names of Israel’s fallen in a loop alongside programs that honor the heroes and highlight the ordeal of bereaved families. Places of entertainment are closed and people adopt a subdued and reflective demeanor. Because everybody in Israel has a friend or family member who died in a war or attack, much of the country visits memorials.

Israel doesn’t have a National Memorial for the fallen. While many IDF soldiers are buried in the national Mt. Herzl Cemetery, most rest in the towns and villages where they lived. Every city has a “Yad Labanim” (a memorial to our children) that honors the local fallen. Ceremonies there are not stately and majestic but intimate and heart wrenching, because each town honors people that residents knew personally.

But the most unique feature of Yom Hazikaron is the siren that sounds all across the country at 11:00am, bringing the country to a complete halt. If you haven’t seen it personally, watch it on YouTube:

People stop what they are doing and stand at attention for the two minutes that the siren blares; traffic stops in the avenues and highways and motorists step out of their cars to stand still. From the sands of Eilat to the shores of the Sea of Galilee the country stops in its tracks. If it wasn’t for the siren itself, you could hear a pin drop on Netivey Ayalon, Israel’s most hectic freeway.

But to me, the most beautiful and meaningful part of this tradition is not the stopping, but the resuming. After the siren, people resume the normalcy of their lives: shoppers go back to buying groceries; drivers get back into traffic jams; employees go back to work; thieves go back to stealing, and policemen go back to catching them. This—Jews plainly leading normal lives in our own homeland—is the understated miracle of Israel and the best monument to those who make it possible.

Most of us have no memories of a time in which Israel didn’t exist. It’s only natural that we take Israel as a given. It’s part of our normalcy. But the Yom Hazikaron siren is there to remind us that this normalcy is nothing short of a miracle, that Israel’s normalcy is an act of defiance and a feat of heroism. That normalcy was bought with blood and broken lives.

I may be in the minority, but I have modest expectations for Israel. I don’t need Israel to be a technological leader; I don’t need it to have the most per-capita Nobel Prize winners in the world; I don’t need it to have the most vibrant intellectual debate in the world. Intel, shmintel; Waze, shmaze. All that is a bonus. What really moves me is the everyday miracles, the normalization of the extraordinary, the routine of the wonderful: a toddler speaking Hebrew; a Star of David on a Jumbo Jet; a radio broadcaster on Friday evening saying “Shabbat Shalom”; the obviousness of seeing matzah at every supermarket (or the mischievous defiance of going to the nearby Arab village to buy pita).   

In this light, the most important message of Yom Hazikaron is not sadness, but gratitude. And maybe that’s why the seemingly abrupt passage from the gloom of Yom Hazikaron to the euphoria of Yom Haatzmaut is somehow seamless. Gratitude links them—gratitude to those who sacrificed everything and gratitude for what they gave us; gratitude for being the recipient of a blessing that we didn’t earn; gratitude for the incredible gift of normalcy; gratitude because, for no special merit of our own, we get to be the first generation in a hundred for whom having a Jewish State is mundane.  

Israel is one of those rare utopias that came true; it’s sustained by a magnificent kaleidoscope of memory and hope. Israel proves the force of dreams and the power of visions. It shows what a people can achieve when it decides to become the master of its own destiny, when it chooses, cost what it may, to become the subject of its own history, rather than a passive object.

My parents met in Israel in 1958, when Israel was celebrating its first milestone birthday, and I always felt a little jealous of them; they got to be there at the beginning, during those first heroic years. But Israel at 70 is still a work in progress, a beginning that doesn’t end, and there’s still enormous heroism in working for the country in the normalcy of the daily grind.

Israel at 70 is not a perfect country, but it’s ours. Its complexities and problems are a call to action rather than an excuse for disengagement; its failings are a gauntlet thrown down, daring us to get involved, to wrestle with the issues, to reject easy answers and simplistic responses. Israel is the ultimate collective experiment of the Jewish people, and, as such, it reflects us all. Its very existence endows us with a unique gift and a weighty responsibility.

On this milestone birthday of our old-new State, let’s take a breath and count our blessings. Let’s take a moment to feel gratitude for those who make that blessing possible and let’s honor them by celebrating the normalcy that they have bequeathed us. Let’s celebrate not with the forced love of the propagandist, nor with the naïve feeling of the ignorant. Let’s celebrate with the genuine love of the one who sees reality in all its beauty, its unruliness, and its complexity. Let’s celebrate Independence and honor its martyrs in the best possible way: defending and building an Israel that works ever harder to live up to the dreams of its ancient prophets and the wildest of its future possibilities—striving together, as a people, to make Israel’s normalcy ever more secure, prosperous, just, peaceful, and creative.

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