Never have I understood more about a country in just a few days than I have this week in Israel. In the span of a week which commemorates the Holocaust, remembers fallen soldiers of the IDF and terror victims as well as celebrates the birth of the country, Israel experiences a spectrum of emotion that elevates and dissipates, from anger and sadness to utter happiness and delight.
From what I’ve learned, the juxtaposition is purposeful and tells me much about Israel and the Jewish people. It tells me that the people of Israel prioritize their emotions and realize their importance among a larger community. It tells me that being Jewish and defending that belief has come at a cost, and the country is never willing to forget that. It tells me that while acknowledging and remembering is painful and necessary, it should not be welcomed to overcome anyone for too long. With this series of holidays, Israel has created a platform which enables its citizens to grieve and observe in a structured, logical way which creates a healthy culture of remembrance and celebration.
The first of these days, Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) is a time to remember those who lost their lives in one of the most horrific massacres in Jewish history. On this day, a siren is sounded for two minutes. During this time, the entire country freezes. Cars on the roads stop, transactions are put on hold and everyone stands in solidarity for the sadness, the anger and the confusion of such an inconceivable event.
On Yom HaShoah, I stood at the gates of Yad Vashem (Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust) during the 2-minute siren, looking out at the Jerusalem skyline with its sloping green hills and bright blue sky. I felt extremely grateful to be in such place of importance for the Jews. I thought of my grandparents and how proud they would be to know I was commemorating our people in such a way.
After the moment of silence we toured different parts of the museum. Not surprisingly, it was all very emotional, but what overwhelmed me the most was the dedication to the murdered children of the Holocaust. As I walked through the dark halls of the memorial, with its mirrored walls reflecting candles and creating an illusion of endless light, I was overcome with grief.
I thought about all of the Jewish children that never got the chance to go to school because someone decided they didn’t deserve it. My mind then went to the Jewish children I teach in Be’er Sheva. I thought of little Shahar and Or. I thought of Hadas and Roi and their sweet, rambunctious and very distinct personalities. I thought about their lives and how they will most likely always be surrounded by conflict. I thought about them growing up and serving in the army and defending their childrens’ rights to go to school. I realized my grief rose from the bonds I had created with those Jewish children and how much my identity has changed in making that connection.
The roller coaster continued into the next week with the sobering Israel Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron. In complete contrast to America’s Memorial Day where half-off sales and beach BBQs create an ambivalent culture surrounding our military, the people of Israel create a narrative defined by mourning. They mourn the loss of soldiers, whether Israeli or lone soldiers coming from other countries. They remember those who were killed in battle and victims of terror attacks.
On this day, I stood on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, Israel’s national cemetery where many war heroes have been buried. I joined an overwhelming crowd of families and soldiers in another 2-minute siren that blasted throughout the country. I watched as mothers bent over their sons’ graves and as daughters clung to their lovers and said another goodbye. I talked to soldiers who stood by the graves of those who didn’t have families that may pay respect. I listened to their stories and knew I was keeping their memory alive in some way. Again, I felt an intense connection to the Israeli people. I felt their pain and I experienced their grief. I was so thankful to everyone in attendance, whether it be for their service or their bereavement.
After an emotional day, I took the bus back to Be’er Sheva where a fireworks show awaited to ring in Israel Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut). I made plans to spend the night with the English teachers I work with in Be’er Sheva. I met the three of them and their families in the center of town to see the fair-like festivities. Combined there were 11 girls and one boy all under the age of 13, most of them whom I’ve met at one point or another in my 8 months here.
That night was a complete contrast of what I had experienced earlier that day, yet entirely the same. The connection I felt to these families was so special – they knew me and I knew them and they were home to me in that moment. Their hugs gave me warmth and their smiles reminded me why I am here. I am here to connect to Israel, and from this past week in Israel, I know I have done exactly that.