Monday, April 19, 2010

Mourning and Celebration - Zionist Schizophrenia

The last two days have been a rafting trip through a river of emotions, ebbing and flowing by the hour. Israelis are like seasoned guides for this kind of trip but, like guides, even they get surprised every time and get an extreme rush from the experience without fail. Every year, as you may well know, Israel has Memorial Day (or Yom Hazikaron) and then immediately follows the solemn ceremonies for the more than 22,000 fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of terrorist attacks with Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut) starting immediately thereafter. There is a sense of “schizophrenia” as Judy Cohen, the YJ Bat Yam coordinator, put it. On Memorial Day, all of Israel is in intense and personal mourning. We visited a cemetery full of bereaved families and friends. The radio stations play only sad music. Stores are closed early and everyone goes to ceremonies, large or small, often times through their municipality to commemorate the day. We went to Bat Yam’s ceremony where all of the 522 names of “the children of Bat Yam and their children” who have fallen in the line of duty or as a result of terror attacks were read. There were easily 3,000 people in attendance. There is a siren that begins Memorial Day at 8 pm and another the next day at 11 am and everyone is truly downtrodden throughout the day since almost everyone knows someone directly who has died in the IDF. However, around 5 pm attitudes and morale start to change.

By 8 pm, around the time when the switch from penultimate sadness to incomparable elation is made, everyone has changed from plain white or black shirts to festive hats, pants, flags, and face paints. In Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square people were dancing with strangers and children were running after each other with bottles of silly-string. It was hard to be anything but overjoyed, even after my friend JD accidentally threw coffee on me (don’t worry it wasn’t hot.) Independence Day itself is a holiday you can enjoy with all of your senses. Fireworks, barbeques, and family gatherings are commonplace across the country. You can hear old Zionist marching songs, folk tunes by Shlomo Artzi, and Kobi Peretz’s Mizrachi music; the excitement is palpable. But in Israel’s press these two days mean something somewhat different. Political correspondents talk about how we’ve triumphed or what we need to do better in the next year, culture and scene reporters praise Israeli films or shun the new wave in a nostalgic look backwards, and social activists rail on the current administration and ask for what’s next. Now, we could do that, although I think it’s obvious what we’d ask for to anyone who has read this blog before, and we still may do so, but not now. For now, I have had my fill of poignant and well worded social commentary – and I don’t think I could even come close to the neighborhood of Israel’s media in the eloquence of my words. But I do have a different insight that I think only an outsider, particularly a young adult could pick up.

These two days are too emotional to process; it reminds us of our national and personal fragility. I had the choice to either go to a ceremony for Memorial Day or to visit my roommate who was spending two days in the hospital because he had a problem with his vision. I chose the ceremony. And during it, one of the speakers read a well known Hebrew poem about a lost friend that roughly translates to:

And while today we must think of so many names, so many stories and lives, you still come to mind. Even though, when the siren rings I am supposed to remember all those that died for me, I will only think of you and you will be the only thing that matters.

Now, granted, my roommate was only in the hospital and not in life threatening condition, but what I realized a couple hours after I got home, was that I may have chosen wrong. I was all caught up in the day and forgot that it is about appreciating those we love. My roommate will be in the army next year and naturally I’m worried for him. I don’t think anything will happen, but still, on a day like Yom Hazikaron, these kinds of thoughts come up. But, that is what happens. On Memorial Day we remember that anyone, regardless of color, wealth, or country of origin, can be lost at any time. We are always close to the brink here, and today we recognize that through awful humor that tries to make light of things, through ritual, through mourning, through guilt, and through moving on into the best day of our lives come tomorrow and independence day.

I don’t mean to go much further than that, but as this is the Garin Tzedek blog, I do want to bring things back to our joint mission. Today and yesterday, we remembered and celebrated some crazy things here and Israel. This kind of distinction is a common theme in Judaism: between the profane and the holy; between the Shabbat and the normal days; between kosher and non-kosher; between death, life and all the stages of life. But those that now the difference between Zikaron and Atzma’ut, literally remembrance and independence, but more appropriately ultimate sorrow and ultimate joy feel how these distinctions sanctify our lives. In Israel how we cope with the responsibility of our independence because of the price we paid for it is a huge part of the culture. The Zikaron-Atzma’ut transition is part of why you can go into an Israeli home and expect to be offered a bed and a meal and why the other passengers on the bus help you find your stop. The understanding that we have to be happy and united because others we too may fall has caused Israel’s greatest victories, and when we’ve forgotten this value, our greatest defeats. This may be the keystone of Zionism and it is something that the Sudanese share as well. There community rises and falls together and they look out for one another because they too are constantly reminded of grief and elation, victories (however small) and their prices (however large.) Today of all days, we can see ourselves within them and them within us.

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