Letter from Israel: Memorial Day

Letter from Israel: Memorial Day

I usually speak with my son in New York on Friday mornings, so when his number popped up on caller ID a couple of Sundays ago, I felt a flutter of anxiety – until I heard him wishing me a happy Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day? Oh, right.

Living in Israel for nearly seven years, my awareness of “Hallmark holidays” has faded almost as much as the Mother’s Day artworks my children brought home from Moriah eons ago – though I did hang these sentimental treasures in our house in Ma’aleh Adumim.

While some secular holidays are gaining popularity in Israel – especially Valentine’s Day, which is strange since we have our own Jewish version on Tu B’Av every summer – the only one that most American olim seem to hang onto for eternity is Thanksgiving. In December, unless you happen to be in Haifa, the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem, or Nazareth, you’d forget there is such a thing as Christmas.

Labor Day, Columbus Day, Presidents Day … all those Monday holidays are off my radar until I try reaching Americans at work on those days.

We have our own Independence Day in Israel – complete with ceremonies, fireworks, and cookouts – and I get much more emotional about it than I ever did on July Fourth, even though I was raised to be a proud American and can sing every number from “1776” by heart.

Nevertheless, we and our children always greatly anticipated U.S. Independence Day. We lived near Queen Anne Road in Teaneck, where the annual parade passes by. Schmoozing with neighbors on the sidewalk that morning was a highlight of the year, and the pictures we snapped marked the growth of our progeny from one July to the next.

A couple of times, our sons marched down Queen Anne Road as Cub Scouts. My husband, a Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps member, drove an ambulance in the procession. It was plain goofy fun to watch the stilt-walking Uncle Sam or catch a candy tossed by a politician. By the end of the parade, our faces were tired from grinning and our arms ached from waving. I really do miss that experience.

Memorial Day (or as my grandmother used to call it, Decoration Day) is not noted on my Israeli desk calendar, of course, but it is more meaningful to me these days. The idea of pausing to reflect on the fallen soldiers who sacrificed their young lives so that I might enjoy peaceful freedom is a good and universal value.

But like most of my generation, I had no personal connection, no specific grave to visit. I am not proud to admit that I never attended a Memorial Day ceremony at Teaneck’s municipal green, five minutes from my house. Unfortunately, Memorial Day was much more about sales, swimming, and barbecues than memorials.

Coming three weeks before U.S. Memorial Day (at least it did this year), Israel’s Memorial – Yom Hazikaron – is intensely personal. Everything comes to a halt when a siren wails for two minutes at dusk and again in the morning throughout this little country, so heartbreakingly soaked in the blood of soldiers and civilians who are not at all nameless or faceless.

In Ma’aleh Adumim I always walk the five minutes to our neighborhood’s Yom Hazikaron tekes (ceremony). How could I not honor the memory of that neighbor’s father, that one’s brother, that one’s teacher, uncle, wife, in-law, cousin, best friend, or child?

This Yom Hazikaron, I emailed Dan Mokady to say I was thinking of him. Dan, a retired Israeli fighter pilot and proprietor of a skydiving business and civilian aircraft museum at Habonim Beach south of Haifa, was only a few years old when his father, Rafi, died in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Dan’s sister made a documentary, “If You Pull North,” revealing how their father was left wounded in the Golan Heights for several days (you can watch a trailer with English subtitles at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0J4ir6iuE0). I went to the premiere at the Jerusalem Cinemateque a couple of years ago with Barbara Casden, a fellow émigré from Teaneck. I was casually acquainted with Dan and had never met his mother or siblings, yet I felt an instant kinship. On Yom Hazikaron I wanted him to know his father was not forgotten, and he appreciated my note.

My heightened awareness of Yom Hazikaron heightens my awareness of Memorial Day in America as well. I’ve become sensitized to the idea of national mourning for specific individuals whose loss may or may not have changed the face of history but certainly changed those they left behind. There’s no memorial siren in America, but a day off from work affords an opportunity to spend a few minutes directing our thoughts to fallen soldiers, terror victims and bereaved families on both sides of the ocean.

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