Saturday, June 4, 2016

Memorial Day Memory

The siren pierces through the heart of the city. It’s a familiar sound heard twice a year – once on Holocaust Memorial Day, and once on the Memorial Day for Israel’s’ fallen soldiers and victims of terror.

I immediately step out onto the Herzliya hotel balcony to watch the world stop. I look below me and suddenly every car is still, many parked in the middle of the street. People walking their dogs stand like statues in their place, and it seems as if the animals know, too.

I have never seen a city overcome with such an intentional stillness—a bustling city turned monopoly board game. Goosebumps raise the hairs on my arms as I stand and watch in awe.

A salty breeze blows through my still body, sending my hair flying behind me. I look out into the direction of the sea to see a middle-aged man standing perfectly still, waist-deep in the Mediterranean, honoring the fallen.

I will never forget the image of this man. It’s the juxtaposition that get’s to me—that abrupt intersection of joy and pain that so defines this crazy country.

It makes me wonder if we, Israelis, could really appreciate the miracles of Israel without the pain, the loss, and the inevitable hardship. Even more, I wonder if these miracles are contingent upon our losses? Does our destiny will us to fight forever?

Undoubtedly, the siren sparked within me many questions—questions that cause me to toss and turn and night, while native Israelis relate to them as routine elements of society. For instance, all of my army friends talk about the Memorial Day siren as a given—because of course, they grew up with it.

This time of year, every city, army base, school, and small town has a ceremony for Yom haZikaron, a generally teary, somber event in which names of the fallen are read and famous singers perform heartbreaking songs accompanied by piano and violin.

And at sundown the following day, people replace their tissues with streamers and poppers as they prepare to decorate the city in blue and white in honor of Independence Day. 

It seems like a harsh transition. Sometimes, it is harsh.  It’s a 48-hour-rollercoaster of emotions, during which we are jolted up and down and to both sides, left wondering what the heck just happened. Indeed, the holiday hangover is not from alcohol, but from the intensity of the experience itself.

Back on the Herzilya balcony, my eyes close and my thoughts begin to ebb and flow with the waves.

I think about sirens, and how this siren is unlike that which signals Israelis to run for their lives; the surprise, 21-seconds of horror that determine life or death; the unfortunate sound that the people of Ashkelon and Sderot know all too well.

This two-minute Memorial siren, by contrast, tells us to pause. To stop and remember. To acknowledge the price our country pays to be able to enjoy our ice-caffe on the Tel Aviv beach andhike the waterfalls of the Golan Heights. It is the price that Israeli mothers and fathers fear when they send their wide-eyed 18-year-old sons and daughters to the bakkum (enlistment center) and watch their children turn into adult soldiers before their eyes.

And just like that—with a packed sandwich, extra snacks and way too many toiletries in their backpack—these 18-year-olds leave the bakkum dawning the familiar olive green and boasting a new identity number around their necks: a number they will likely remember for the rest of their lives.

I know I will.

Though the army is but a two-to-three year chapter of Israeli life (not including reserves), it is a critical one. And sadly, for some, this chapter becomes the conclusion.

For those lives that were ended too soon—and for those civilians who became innocent victims of the hands of evil—we remember.

We remember their smile and their tears and their jokes and their dreams. We sing songs to reignite the love they once shared and instill it in the hearts of the people of Israel. We stand in the middle of streets and on balconies to watch the country honor them.

And while staring down at a man standing upright in the sea, we feel whole with the truth that pain is an inextricable part of our joy.