Standing at Attention

I’ve heard several sirens over the last few weeks, and each made me pause and think:

The first siren I heard was on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Taking a break from Halacha class, I stood at attention with my classmates, outdoors, but surrounded by the walls of the property. I could only imagine the rest of the country doing the same. As the sun hit my face, and the breeze whipped through me, I thought about the reason we stood there. Of the millions of Jews and other people deemed too “different” to remain in society whose time of enjoying the sun and spring breeze was cut far too short. Of the Jews for whom the dream of studying Talmud in Jerusalem was as foreign as the nightmares that they faced in the camps, ghettos, and in hiding. Of how lucky I was, simply to have been born where and when I was. Of my grave responsibility to make these silenced voices heard once again.

The second siren I heard was during the evening of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers. I stood at attention in Rabin Square with tens of thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds. We gathered because we needed to. We sang somber songs led by popular Israeli artists, heard the poetry of fallen soldiers, and watched video tributes to soldiers killed in battle that spanned decades of war and reflected the variety of religious, ethnic, and political backgrounds of IDF soldiers. There was an overwhelming feeling in the air of a desire for everyone to feel connected, to sit with each other in grief and solidarity. I truly felt like I was in community with each and every person around me that evening.

“Shirim Bakikar” at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv

There were thousands of people there.

The third siren I heard was the next morning. I stood at attention with the students and family members of the Keshet School in Jerusalem, accompanying a teacher of mine whose own children had studied there. The ceremony, or tekes, was planned and presented by the 12th grade students, kids who  did so with the awareness that in just a few months, they too will be soldiers, at risk for having their own stories told in future years. The students sang, danced, told stories, and read reflections with deep respect for the task at hand. I was in awe. That afternoon, I went to Har Herzl, the national military cemetery, and walked around, reading headstones and absorbing the stories of those who lay there. I reflected on Yom Hazikaron in Israel and how it differs from our own Memorial Day in the United States. Instead of barbecues, people gather and sing sad songs of war, loss, and love. Instead of parades, people gather for memorial ceremonies. Instead of shopping sales, people stand still at the graves of those they love and lost.*

At the memorial for victims of terror at Har Herzl

The fourth time I stood at attention, it was for the sounding of a shofar. I was at a Tekes Maavar, a transition ceremony, and this blast marked the moment of leaving behind (at least for now) the grief of remembering, and moving into the celebration of Yom Haatzmaut, Independence Day. Walking outside, I felt like someone had flipped a switch over Israel. All of a sudden, mobs of people crowded the streets, buying hot corn on the cob, cotton candy, and that annoying foam that kids like to spray at everyone. Techno beats pulsed from speakers set up on street corners. A singalong followed by Israeli folk dancing dominated Kikar Safra (Safra Square). There was a feeling of relief, of relaxation in the air, as if the Jewish population was saying: we made it through this tough day, now it’s time to celebrate and make the sacrifices of our loved ones worth it. This carefree feeling carried over into the next day- I spent some time in the park, and saw countless numbers of families and friends just sitting in the shade with a grill, enjoying the day, the weather, and each others’ company. I closed out Yom Haatzmaut with a really nice “al ha’esh” (literally, “on the fire,” how Israelis refer to barbecues) with some friends that evening.

The craziness that was Ben Yehuda Street on Yom Haatzmaut

People enjoying their picnics in the park

The blasts of the sirens serve the same purpose as that of the shofar, both at this time of year, and during the High Holidays. We are forced to pay attention, to stop what we are doing, be reminded of what is important that day, and know that no one is remembering alone.

This time of year is so saturated with sacred time, it’s as if we are in a constant state of acknowledging something special, punctuated with moments of normalcy. We celebrated Pesach, we count the Omer,  we remembered victims of the Holocaust, we celebrated a new month, we remembered fallen soldiers, we celebrated the anniversary of the rebirth of a nation. More recently, we knocked Lag Ba’omer off the list, and are starting to gear up for Shavuot in a couple of weeks. In between, even Shabbat is beginning to feel like a normal day.

Lag Ba’Omer: the day when small children play with large fires totally unsupervised

Now, with less than a month left here, I’m starting to think of each day as sacred in it’s own way, whether the calendar tells me I should or not. It’s been an incredibly rewarding practice, perhaps one that I’ll try to continue when I get home.


* Below is an additional report on Yom Hazikaron that I sent to Rabbi Nevins to share with my classmates back in New York:
So, I spent yesterday in Tel Aviv, where at least during the day, things seemed pretty normal. Around 6-7pm though, the city seemed to get quiet all of a sudden. Shops started closing, traffic was slowing, and streets were being closed off. I could definitely feel a different tone in the air. I went to Kikar Rabin for “Shirim Bakikar” with Sarit and my roommate Becky. We were there for the siren, standing in silence with tens of thousands of other people who came out to remember the fallen. The tekes involved popular Israeli artists performing many of the somber “radio” songs interspersed with poems and powerful video tributes to individual fallen soldiers. The words to songs were projected on a screen so people could sing along. I was amazed at how fast people seemed to transition: into Yom Hazikaron itself, silencing immediately for the siren, starting up conversation afterwards, and silencing again the second emcee Yair Lapid opened the tekes. There seemed to be an overwhelming feeling of people just wanting to be together, and communal singing facilitated that connectedness.
This morning I went to a school tekes with a teacher of mine from Hartman- it was planned by Kitah Yod Bet, the kids who will for the most part be entering the army next year. They put together a beautiful, poignant program filled with readings, tributes, songs, dance, and visual art. I had the chance to debrief with my teacher afterwards, which was especially meaningful, because this was the school that her kids had attended, so she herself felt very emotionally connected to the experience.
I spent the afternoon at Har Herzl, just reading names on graves and plaques and being a presence. I went to find Matt Eisenfeld’s name at the memorial for victims of terror, and wove through the years and wars, the graves and monuments. There was a definite change in energy as we entered the section of newer graves. It was especially painful to see a couple of graves that were barely a week old and at this point were just mounds of dirt with a sign stuck in them, covered with flowers. One was for Hila Bezaleli, the soldier who was killed last week at the accident on Har Herzl while rehearsing for tonight’s tekes.
Not sure what the transition is going to look like tonight, but I’m definitely feeling in tune with the rest of the country and am looking forward to celebrating and relaxing with everyone.

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