We observed Yom Hashoah, a Holocaust memorial, last week. A year ago at this time when I was in language school our instructors led us on a short walk from the classrooms to a major intersection near the Mamilla Hotel. We stood at the corner until sirens blew in memory of those Jews killed in concentration camps during World War II. Sirens sounded for about a minute. Traffic, talking, walking…everything stopped. Pedestrians stood at attention. Kids lowered their smart phones.
Drivers stopped on the street and stood at attention beside their cars.
As moving as that was, the experience this year was even more intense. Without expecting much to be different, Marcia and I stepped onto our patio this year as the sirens began to wail. Across the street a gray-haired woman rose from a bench seat and stood with hand over heart. A cab driver pulled to the curb and stood at attention beside his car. Up the street, a bus stopped. The only sound came from sirens. It was the same scene we’d witnessed a year earlier and yet entirely different. It was beyond weighty or impressive; it hurt.
Why? The answer seemed to come days later.
Shortly after commemorating Yom Hashoah, we celebrated Israeli Independence Day. Enthusiasm had been building for the country’s 64th birthday for weeks; people buying and displaying flags, making plans to grill outdoors, to kick soccer balls in the park and watch fireworks in the evening. But there was more to it. At the small party we attended that day at our neighbor’s apartment, we actually sang the Israeli national anthem. Then our hostess asked everyone to share a positive experience about our lives in Israel.
And we did.
My favorite tale was an eyewitness account; an Israeli bus driver left his daily route, Route 17 in Jerusalem, to rush a heart-attack victim to the hospital. A man had collapsed shortly after boarding the bus so the driver broke from his route and yes, all the passengers came along for the wild ride. This happened during the First Intifada, when restaurants and clubs and buses had been bombed across Israel with disturbing regularity, so when the runaway bus finally came bounding into the hospital parking lot, a score of nurses and attendants rushed out, assuming the worst, with wheelchairs and first aid. When it became clear that only one man aboard needed attention, a victim of a heart attack, not terrorism, the nurses smiled and rushed him inside as they waved goodbye. No one remaining on the bus said a word when the driver pulled out slowly into traffic and eventually, after that lengthy detour, resumed Route 17.
Anthems? Flags? Stories? What an odd afternoon. By its end everybody had told a tale of unexpected kindness encountered in this largely impersonal town. The surprise is, more than food and games and fireworks, Independence Day in Israel is about independence.
It’s about how, despite our differences, we sense how blessed the Jewish people are to live in God’s ordained state.
But one of the stories we heard that afternoon was distinctly different. It seems an orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem, when performing religious conversions, is in the habit of asking candidate converts a loaded question during the finale of the mikvah ceremony.
“Will you die with me?” the rabbi asks and, as it turns out, every Jew so far has answered yes.
It’s a sad common denominator. It seems that over millenia the Jewish people have never completely agreed on anything, but now… Yes, we will die together here in Israel if that’s God’s will. This is not meant to be morbid. It speaks simply of resolve. It took some story-telling and song-singing to clarify why this year’s commemorative siren blast on Yom Hashoah seemed to mean so much more. It’s that Marcia and I are now part of it; part of honoring those passed, part of living independently in a Jewish state, part of being resolved that a Day of Calamity happens Never Again.
The “best friend the Jews ever had” (according to Joe Biden) is at it again:
Obama lifts freeze on $192 million aid package to Palestinian Authority
Funding serves ‘security interests of the US,’ says president. Congress blocked it after Abbas’s bid for UN recognition of ‘Palestine’