The HOGs and us
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The HOGs and us

Letter from Israel

The HOGs leave Mount Herzl. (Abigail Klein Leichman)
The HOGs leave Mount Herzl. (Abigail Klein Leichman)

How did my husband and I end up singing the classic Naomi Shemer ballad “Lu Yehi” with a friendly group of leather-jacketed, tattooed Harley Davidson bikers and their sweethearts in a graveyard on Israeli Independence Day?

It’s a long story.

Let’s begin with Steve’s inspired notion, back in 2012, to spend our day off for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) visiting Mount Herzl, the 25-acre national military and police cemetery in Jerusalem.

People always look puzzled when we tell them that this has become our Yom Ha’atzmaut ritual. They assume we must mean the previous day, Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) when Mount Herzl teems with dignitaries, bereaved families, and representatives of organizations laying wreaths and paying tribute to servicemen and women, presidents, prime ministers, and the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl.

Visiting this beautifully landscaped final resting place on Independence Day — when most Israelis have put aside the sadness of Yom Hazikaron and are busy fanning barbecue flames at family picnics — has become a poignant highlight of the day for us.

The grave of police officer Baruch Mizrachi is adorned with flag, flowers, biographical information
and a child’s drawing. (Abigail Klein Leichman)

The cemetery is nearly empty of visitors, except for an occasional group of young people on the Israel leg of the March of the Living experience. The sound of chirping birds and gentle breezes bears no hint of the cries that surely permeated the air only yesterday. Yet the visual traces of the previous day are extraordinarily moving.

On each of the approximately 3,500 graves, the Ministry of Defense’s Department of Families and Commemoration has placed a small Israeli flag encircled with a black ribbon; several memorial candles; and multiple floral bouquets. (This happens in each of the country’s 52 military cemeteries.)

Every headstone reveals the name of the person buried below it, as well as his or her parents (if known), the date and place of birth and death, and when the person came to Israel if he or she was not born here. We see a staggering variety of nations of birth — Poland, Romania, Hungary, Germany, Belgium, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen, Egypt, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, France, Austria, Italy, Bulgaria, Turkey — and a few English-speaking countries, too.

As at any Jewish cemetery, visitors to Mount Herzl place small stones on the graves to signify that someone has been there. On Yom Hazikaron, many also leave a handwritten note or children’s drawing, or a form requesting anyone with biographical information on the deceased to write to a certain email address. Some graves are topped with carefully typed information on the deceased tucked into a plastic sleeve, providing us with additional insights into a life cut short by war or terror.

One of our fellow visitors to the National Memorial Hall for Israel’s Fallen on Yom Ha’atzmaut. (Steve Leichman)

This year we were eager to add Mount Herzl’s new National Memorial Hall for Israel’s Fallen to our route.

When we arrived, we were told a group was starting its tour and we could join in. To our surprise, the group comprised members of the Israeli HOG (Harley Owners Group) community and their significant others.

We asked permission to photograph some of them, and it was granted graciously, with a smile.

The visitors listened with respect and patience — not always evident in Israeli tour groups — as a female soldier and a female police officer described the magnificent new building and its symbolism.

The interior periphery is lined with a Wall of Names composed of nearly 23,000 aluminum bricks, personally engraved and arranged by year of death.

This brick funnel is at the center of Mount Herzl’s National Memorial Hall for Israel’s Fallen. (Abigail Klein Leichman)

Adding a Jewish touch, a video display shows the faces and biographical details of those whose yahrzeit coincides with the day of your visit — in our case, the fourth of Iyar. The corresponding brick in the wall lights up that day as well.

At the heart of the hall, shafts of bright Jerusalem sunlight cascade down through a 60-foot funnel of 6,000 additional bricks.

Gathering in a circle around the funnel, we received sheets with the words to “Lu Yehi.” Every Israeli knows the melody and we raised our voices together.

We all sing “Lu Yehi” with our guide. (Abigail Klein Leichman)

“Lu yehi” means “may it be” or “let it be,” but not in the Paul McCartney sense of accepting what is. Naomi Shemer’s very Israeli song is a passionate prayer for what could be.

Here are three of the verses in translation:

There is yet a white sail on the horizon,
Set against the dark and heavy clouds,
All that we ask for, let it be.
A
nd if in the windows by evening,
The festive candles should flicker,
All that we ask for, let it be.

And if the messenger should come to the door,
Place good news on his lips,
All that we ask for, let it be.
If your soul asks to pass on,
From blooms and harvests,
All that we ask for, let it be.

And if suddenly from the dark should shine,
The light of a star on our faces,
All that we ask for, let it be.
Give peace and also strength
To all those we love,
A
ll that we ask for, let it be.

So there we were, the bikers and the two American émigrés, belting out our hopes for peace and strength in the special land we share.

Walking out of that hallowed ground into the bright Jerusalem sunlight, the HOGs mounted their Israeli-flag-bedecked motorcycles and roared off down Herzl Boulevard, while overhead Israeli jets performed a fabulous flyover. Being neither bikers nor pilots, we wended our way on foot down the boulevard toward a favorite café, grateful for the privilege of celebrating 70 years of Israeli statehood at the heart of it all.

The Wall of Names. (Abigail Klein Leichman)
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