A Condensed Window into Israeli Secular Society: A Foreigners Persepctive

The end of April or beginning of May (depending on how the calendars align) in Israel is marked by a series of heavy national days of reflection, Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day), Yom HaZikron (Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day). While the latter can readily be identified as a “holiday” (by those Israeli’s who celebrate the realization of the national Jewish state, anyhow – see more on Nakba Day for those who don’t), this yearly week and a half long national ritual truely captures the quintessential intensity of this burly budding nation, and is perhaps the best time of year for newcomers and foreigners to experience the pulse of Israeli secular culture.

The emotional roller coaster ride beginning on the eve of Holocaust Day (all Jewish days of importance begin and end with the setting of the sun) and can be outwardly discerned by the sad songs played on the radio, and the general pause of daily, regular life and routine. At our chain of sports clubs, Spin Dan, we stop all classes that use loud music and continue only with those that can be done without music. In the evening all of the kibbutziem in our area, and presumably around the country, pause to hold memorial ceremonies where family members read the names of their relatives who lost their lives in Nazi-occupied Europe, the sad songs of Holocaust Day are sung, and a general air of remembrance is observed to respect and honor what the modern state of Israel was born out of. The next morning, at 11am the entire country pauses in unison to stand in two minutes of silent respect for the 6 million Jews who were slaughtered, signaled by the air raid sirens blasting their woeful sound nationwide. I always find that these two minutes really hit home the gravity of what we are standing for, and of what this country was built from. Intense, to say the least.

The setting sun signals the end of Holocaust Day and life returns to normal for a few days before Memorial Day. Again beginning at sundown, this day of remembrance is marked by two sirens, the first a one-minute silence at 8pm the eve of Memorial Day and the second at 11am the following morning, when many people attend ceremonies around the nation in cemeteries where their fallen countrymen and women are lain. If possible, Memorial Day is even heavier than Holocaust Day and understandably so.

You are hard-pressed to find any Israeli who has not personally lost a family member or friend (and sadly most often both) to the nations many wars and terrorist attacks. Our family, for example, gathers at the cemetery in Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov Ichud every year to honor the memory of Jacob (Ya’akov) Barkai, my mother-in-laws brother who was killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the Sinai (Egypt). And he is not the only son of the kibbutz to be memorialized. The ceremony honors all of the fallen soldiers and victims of armed conflict (ie. children and farmers killed by landmines in the Ashdot fields that border with Jordan) by having the eighth grade students of the kibbutz school lay memorial wreaths on each of the graves as the names are read aloud individually. I have never counted, but by my estimation there are well over 20 wreaths every year. And this is one small kibbutz in the north of Israel. We also attended the evening ceremony of Kibbutz Degania Alef this year, another kibbutz in the Jordan Valley, and their dead equaled or exceeded the number in Ashdot. Every community has lost and sacrificed in Israel’s short yet marred history, and you really feel this on Memorial Day.

It is interesting to compare the general atmosphere of the Israeli memorial day to that of the Americans, where aside from perhaps slapping a “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker on the back of the pick-up, the national holiday is celebrated with booze, BBQs and good times. I suppose time and distance does heal all wounds. Although I’d imagine the families who have lost (and continue to lose) their sons and daughters in Afghanistan and Iraq probably have a different perspective.

The end of Israeli Memorial Day serves as a rather dramatic (and shocking) transition between tears of remembrance for all of those who fought and died to make Israel a reality and the bursting national pride of what they fought and died for; Independence Day. When the clock strikes 8pm, it literally takes only a matter of moments (or however long the national anthem takes to sing) to jettison out of the past and into the now, where the State of Israel is alive and thriving, despite the trials and tribulations her people have suffered over the decades.

Again, ceremonies are held but in an entirely different atmosphere – what was somber and reflective on Holocaust and Memorial Days is now replaced by active, joyous even raucous celebration. In the kibbutiem members put together elaborate shows with the children singing and playing music, ceremonial fire-lighting for those who have celebrated their bar/bat mizvahs that year, and dance numbers to your hearts content. The end of the ceremony is then topped off with a fireworks display and Popsicles, a great combo. The next day is also a holiday, during which all self-respecting Israelis practice one of their favorite national pastimes; barbecuing.

All in all, these 10 days run the full gamut of emotions. From this foreigners perspective, the condensed experience contained in Holocaust day, Memorial Day and Independence Day really define the national consciousness of secular society here in Israel of a people steeped, scarred, and eventually triumphant in their history and fearlessly charging into whatever future may hold for them.