Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut

In Israel, it's personal.

There is nothing remote or symbolic about Yom HaZikaron, Israel's Memorial Day, for Israelis. It is the day when you remember specific people in your family, or your friends or in your friends' families. It is a day to remember the people who graduated from the same school you go to, or those who were members of the same communities to which you belong. Everyone is touched by the death of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice to defend and protect Israel and those civilians killed in terrorist attacks.

The memorial at the Kotel

At my children's elementary school, memorials of alumni and students can be found at the main entrance. Each has a picture and a story. Some have books that were put together about the young person's life; something that has become common practice when a soldier dies. There are a dozen young smiling faces. Equally as powerful as their pictures is to see the gathering of people reading the stories and leafing through the memorial books. They were the children, the students. These people who died stood where they stood not too long ago, carrying their backpacks, playing football with their friends and learning from the very same teachers. For these first through sixth graders, the reality of life in Israel, at all levels, is already a part of their consciousness. I imagine it makes Israelis have to grow up faster than other kids.

The memorial at my kids' elementary school

I remember the last time I was in Israel for Yom HaZikaron. I went to Sultan's Pool outside the old city walls for a gathering. There was a big screen and the stories of those who had died that year were being told. I sat there with hundreds of Israels listening to the story of a settlement family of five, including a newborn baby, who had been murdered by terrorists just days before.  Hundreds of somber faces sat and mourned together.

At the same time, Yom HaZikaron brings up different emotions for others who live in Israel. This year, we went to the bridge that leads to the Jaffa Gate to be with people there when the sirens rang for two minutes of silence. Now, every other time I have been in Israel when the siren sounded, I've been in the heart of Jewish Jerusalem: Ben Yehudah, King David Street, King George Street. And, when the sirens sounded, everyone stood still, creating an overwhelming sense of shared loss. Today, right on the boarder between east and west Jerusalem, half the cars didn't even stop. Others blasted their horn and tried to drive around those who had gotten out of their cars. People walking ignored what was happening and kept right on going. 

During the siren right outside the Jaffa Gate

Not everyone in Jerusalem mourns the loss of fallen Israeli soldiers. Palestinians call the Israeli Day of Independence the Nakba, the Day of Catastrophe. When Israelis celebrate their independence, others mourn their losses of people, of their homes and their land. People's reactions to Yom HaZikaron certainly stand out as an example of how Jerusalem is terribly divided. Far from being comforting, the scene today was painful and disturbing. 

The complexity of life in Israel continues, for as soon as the sun sets on Yom HaZikaron, the music and dancing for Yom HaAzmaut begin. The losses are terrible, but going from mourning to celebration helps remind everyone of what the sacrifices were for. The only time I have ever experienced people to taking to the street and celebrating the way Israelis celebrate Yom HaAzmaut is when one of the local sports teams won a national championship. There is folk dancing at Kikar Safra, Jerusalem's Civic Center, fireworks over Independence Park a little past midnight, and thousands of people walking the streets with inflatable toys decorated with Israeli flags and wearing light up headbands.

Dancing in Kikar Safra

It is unbridled joy, the likes of which I could barely fathom on any given Fourth of July. On the other hand, it never once crossed my mind on a Forth of July that there is a chance that the United States might not exist to celebrate at the same time next year. Of course, it is highly unlikely that would be the case for Israel, but no one knows for sure what the future will bring. Enjoy what is now.

In Israel, it's personal. The losses are personal losses. The joys are about individual freedom. Perhaps that is why it is so intense as well. The intensity of both the sadness and the happiness are powerful and moving, and so telling of the reality of life in Israel. If you want to really know this place, come to experience Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut one year. It is an amazing time to be in Israel.

Shaving cream graffiti of Star of David in downtown Jerusalem

Monday, April 8, 2013

Yom HaShoah

Today at 10:00am, the sirens rang and all of Israel stopped what we were doing. For two minutes, Israel stood still in memory of the six million who were killed in the Holocaust.

Words cannot describe the power and beauty of those two minutes of communal and personal remembrance. It is a ritual unique to Israel that is a symbol of our unity as a people. No matter what our battles between each other at all other times, in our mourning, we stand in silence together.

May the memories of the six million, some of whose stories we know and others we do not, lead each of us to live lives of righteousness. May kindness, compassion and a love for all humanity guide our every action.  May we have the strength to protect each other and to comfort each other no matter what befalls us. May we have the wisdom to learn from the terrible mistakes of humanity in order to create a world more kind and more just than we have ever known. May we use the blessing of our very lives to bring blessing to all people.

May this be God's will.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Pesach in Israel


Passover is a very special time to be in Israel. While it can be a tough week at home, both because there is bread everywhere and most other people are eating it, and  because that fact offers a constant reminder that we are a tiny minority, in Israel, as you can imagine, it is totally different. Everyone is celebrating Passover in one way or another. Many restaurants serve kosher for Passover food or at least have matzah as an alternative to bread. And, everyone says Chag Sameach to each other. Of course, that is how we greet each other in the synagogue, but to have the store clerks, and the security guards and the random people walking down the street say it is a fantastic experience. It feels really good to be a part of the whole instead of feeling like you are outside it.

Maybe it is a little taste of what it is like to celebrate Christmas in the States and to hear everyone saying Merry Christmas. It used to really frustrate me that people would fight to say Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays. I wondered why people would work so hard to intentionally ignore all the minorities in the country. But, maybe now I can see it from others' perspective. It isn't ignoring us as much as it is wanting to feel that sense of wholeness and connection with other members of society. There were plenty of Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem who said Chag Sameach to me and I to them, and it felt good. So, at least for today, I intend not to begrudge anyone that positive feeling of saying Merry Christmas and having others say it in return. Especially if people can promise that by saying Merry Christmas, they are not denying my existence, just celebrating their holiday.

We'll see how I feel next December.

The one draw back to being in Israel rather than the US is obtaining a shank bone. I've never paid for a shank bone at home. Here, one butcher wanted me to pay 50 shekels for it and two others would only sell me the whole leg of lamb. Luckily, we have an aquaintence who was making lamb and had an extra bone.

Here are some things that you can see on the streets of Jerusalem before and during Pesach.

People bringing pots and pans to be kashered for Passover
Pots, pans and utensils dipped in the boiling water so they are kosher for Passover

Burning chametz

In the picture above, you can see that someone brought a lulav from Sukkot to burn with their chametz. Some believe that, because the lulav was used to fulfill and mitzvah, you should not just throw it away. Rather, you should use it for another mitzvah if possible. Thus the tradition is to use the lulav to start the fire in which you burn your chametz. 

Making Yemenite matzah

 Yemenite matzah is soft like pita. And, very expensive. 90 shekels (almost $25) for three pieces.

And this is a small grocery store a few blocks from where we live.

Chametz covered and unsaleable during Pesach

And on a completely different topic, here are a few images from Obama's visit last month.

Motorcade a block from our apartment
Greenpeace activists climbed the cables of this bridge early in the morning and were too high for authorities to reach.
They would not let us stand within a few hundred meters of the entrance to the President's house where Obama was visiting so he never got this message, but the kids had fun making the signs anyway.

Belated Chag Sameach!