Sundays in Israel mark the beginning of the work week, in a country that each Saturday imposes a mandatory day of rest, beginning, as all Jewish holidays do, on the evening prior. On Friday afternoons in Jerusalem, Shabbat is in the air, as shopkeepers lock their doors by mid-afternoon and by 5 p.m. the café crowd is left with few options. Flower vendors sell their multi-colored bouquets at every corner, while kippahed men hurry home with challahs under their arms and sprigs of mint in their hands. By evening, the city is silent.
The late-afternoon air was becoming cooler as I strolled toward Rabin Square on Sunday, April 14th. Ordinarily, these streets were full of multitudes of people, sipping café afuch in the multitude of cafes spelling out English names like Aroma and Our Café in Hebrew letters. Tourists would be weaving in and out of shops selling everything from tfillin to bikinis and the streets would be a constant parade of Tel Aviv chic. On this particular afternoon, however, ordinary unfolded into extraordinary. By 6 p.m. chairs were stacked on restaurant tables, the corrugated metal door covers of stores concealing their offerings. Stragglers searching for a bottle of water or a piece of fruit might find an occasional grocer eeking out a few extra shekels before the mandatory closing time of 7 P.M. when a stillness would unfold itself over the streets of this major cosmopolitan city on this Sabbath-like Sunday evening.
At 7:55 P.M. Kikar Rabin, named in memory of Israel’s assassinated prime minister, was filled with thousands of people, seating themselves on folded chairs, a huge stage before them, with the blue and white Israeli flag draped across each side; images of votive candles and the Hebrew word, Yizhor projected above the stage, where a few musicians and a couple of men in suits and tieless white shirts conferred near a podium.
A 8 P.M. the sirens began to wail. All stood in silence. Their cry would reverberate from the northernmost city of Kiryat Shimona to the southernmost beach resort of Eilat on the Red Sea. In every kibbutz, moshav, small town, and settlement, people stopped and listened and remembered. Yom Ha Zicharon is the day when Israel remembers the almost 25,000 soldiers who had fallen in service, as well as hundreds of the country’s victims of terrorism, since the U.N. voted to partition Israel as a state in 1948.
I did not want to make this trip to Israel. The constant vilifying of the Jewish state in the media and in my own city, where Saturday morning demonstrators stood on Main Street decrying an occupation with signs that read, “End Israeli Apartheid” and “Free Palestine,” had weakened my longstanding passion for this miracle in the desert. I hated Bibi Netanyahu’s arrogance and could not defend Israel’s increased settlement building, in a country that seemed to increasingly be saying “Fuck you” to peace. I came to Israel with a suitcase packed with reluctance and disdain, yet still with a kernel of hope. It was like agreeing to try one more time with a lover who had jilted me. I expected little, but couldn’t say no to my Zionist heart, as well as my husband, who had recruited three busloads of new and returning Western Massachusetts tourists for nine nights and ten long days of touring in Eretz Yisrael. I dreaded all of it.
Until Yom HaZicharon…….For an hour and a half I listened to some of Israel’s leading musicians spill their hearts into music that spoke of innocence and longing, of rain and mothers and children and eternal grief. On a large screen, families and friends remembered their children, spouses, parents, and friends. All watch a mother recount the dreaded knock on the door in 1973 announcing that her husband would not be returning. She would hear that same knock several years later, only this time she would learn that never again would she wrap her arms around her beloved son. A Druze father, surrounded by pictures of his boy, speaks of a longing that is an unquenchable thirst for his parched heart; a longing that even a newborn son cannot quench. A beautiful, young woman smiles as she recounts through photos her joyful wedding, a marriage that would end weeks later as a news report describes a young man killed in an ambush, throwing his body on top of his friend to save his life. And in between, a handsome Israeli actor, in an ephemeral voice, read letters and poems written by soldiers to mothers and mothers to lost sons and daughters.
My heart broke.
The crowd sat silently; some holding hands, others watching; an occasional tear, an occasional whisper. Afterwards, they streamed out and filled Tel Aviv’s nearby hip and high-fashion Rehov Rothchild, lighting cigarettes, sitting on benches, talking in groups. This was a twenty-something crowd—tatooed, pierced, some with cigarettes between polished fingernails, others sporting hipster fedoras. It could have been a Sunday night in Washington Square Park. But this was Israel, where their carefree faces betrayed the reality that every one of them carried inside a loved one’s memory, a flame of grief that was rekindled on this day of collective grieving. In the crowd were the faces of young men and women in khaki green IDF uniforms; I wondered which of them would be mourned and who would next year mourn a new loss.