From Sunday night to last night, was Israel’s memorial day or Yom Hazikaron in Hebrew. This is a very melancholy day, when people remember the friends and relatives that fell in battle or were killed in a terrorist attack. Unlike in the U.S., it is not seen simply as a day to rest, to shop with a discount, to extend the weekend, it is so somber here that it is practically a holy day. The stereotype is that every Israeli either knows someone who was killed in one of these situations, or at least knows someone who does. It may not be true, but the atmosphere of Memorial Day here touches everyone, and everyone feels a sense of a personal loss.
Each pair of soldiers in my company was given four names of fallen soldiers to find in Kriat Shaul, a military cemetery in Tel Aviv that we would later guard. Our job was to place a stone, an Israeli flag in the stone, a candle for their family to light later when they arrive. The part that touched me was the necessity to salute their sacrifice before moving on to the next name. In the IDF, saluting is just another formal thing, and formality is not very keenly observed in Israel. But for this, we saluted and with conviction.
These were people who gave their lives for the State, and the thought never stopped striking me that maybe they didn’t even want to be soldiers. Everyone is drafted here, I’m different because I volunteered. There is a comfort in knowing something is your choice, it makes any consequences from that choice a lot easier to handle emotionally. So what about these soldiers I am saluting now? If they were anything like the soldiers I serve with now, then they would probably say they wanted to be combat soldiers.
While I thought about this, I remembered that bank teller that learned I was a foreigner who volunteered for duty in the IDF. In a moment of Israeli straightforwardness, and without a moment’s hesitation, she asked me flat out “what if you die?” The question struck me like a blunt object, not because I never thought about that, but simply because of the utter point blank range way she asked. I shrugged her question off, saying its not in the plan. But if I could go back, I would have given this answer:
“If I let fear of death stop me from living the life I want, then why live at all?”
With this in mind, Yom Hazikaron finally fell upon us. We had our own military ceremony in Netanya, in a nice Beit HaChayal (Soldier’s Hostel). This place was very nice, as it was equipped like a hotel with a great view and a big field of grass with picnic tables. As we stood there looking forward, and forward looking, the piercing sound of the siren began to ring. I could feel the bones in my spine shudder.
The next morning we were up at 4am, and on the bus back to Kriat Shaul, by 5am. It would have been quicker, but our commander was not pleased with the speed of our ascension to the bus. So he kept giving us short times to get on and off the bus, each time either putting our bags in or taking our bags out of the bottom of the bus. Our mission was to stand at each entrance to the cemetery and do things like make sure soldiers carrying guns left their weapons with us, and remind any soldier that appeared to forget, to put his beret on his head! I rather enjoyed this part, because a lot of the time it was a forgetful officer I was remanding.
But the bigger mission was to represent the fallen soldiers as best we could, because the people visiting on this day don’t see us when they look at us, they see the soldiers they came to visit. So we made sure to always look our best, keep our boots polished, our uniform straight at all times with nothing out of place, etc. Some of us at the entrance where I was couldn’t stand straight and still for very long, someone would lean, someone else would walk around. I couldn’t let myself do that, I took one look at the people taking a morning out of their lives to visit people that took their lives out of the mornings, and I stood straight for four and a half hours.
And the number of people that came, really struck me! There was no end to the people entering, and every entrance was like that, not just mine. I read in the news that at least one million people attended the various ceremonies in Israel’s 52 military cemeteries across the country. But what really struck me was after everyone was finally inside.
When the siren sounds at 11am, exactly, the country literally freezes. The first two times I heard the siren, I was either on my base or in a giant courtyard where only disciplined soldiers stood. But now, I was standing at the entrance to a cemetery in Tel Aviv, to my left a big open parking lot and all around me are civilians walking to and from. Yet, at the moment the siren sounded, everyone froze. For two minutes, I wasn’t the only one standing still, the multitudes around me were as well.
And when I say frozen, I don’t mean merely paused or silent. I mean, frozen, as if involuntarily. For example, just before the siren sounded there was a man talking on his cell phone exiting from the cemetery, and as soon as the siren began he stood in place with his phone still to his ear! And no one was saying a word on the other side, because that person is no doubt doing exactly the same thing with the phone to their ear! Can you appreciate the seriousness with which a country of people have to take this? It would have been easy to say “Hang on, I’ll call you back” and quickly put the phone away. But no, when that siren rings, you freeze and you think about what this day means to you.
To end on a positive note, Yom Hazikaron always leads directly to Yom Atzmaut (Independence Day!). The thing our loved ones sacrificed their lives for is better, faster, smarter, stronger than ever.
The lyrics to this song truly explain the reason for the sacrifice remembered on Yom Hazikaron, and what it is we celebrate right afterward. A link to the lyrics to this song in English: http://www.hebrewsongs.com/song-einlieretzacheret.htm