Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Trifecta

I was fortunate enough to be in Israel at a time when the country celebrates three national holidays nearly back to back: Yom Ha’Shoa, Yom Ha’Zikaron, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut: Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day.

First came Yom Ha’Shoa, celebrated in true Israeli fashion. The night before (referred to as the “erev” and when most of the celebrations for the various holidays occur), my roommates and I went to a local high school to watch their ceremony. It is a rite of passage for teenagers in eleventh grade to focus on Holocaust studies; they take a trip to Poland and are responsible for putting together the Yom Ha’Shoa events. This group of kids reenacted Adolf Eichmann’s trial, focusing on the survivors’ courtroom testimonials. Of course I barely understood a word, but it was interesting to watch from the cultural perspective. First off, I was inside an Israeli high school for the first time, and surprise surprise, it looks the same except with Hebrew writing. I was impressed by the seriousness with which the kids undertook the evening. They sang songs and delivered speeches with a maturity and solemnity I could not envision in their American counterparts. Also, I’m not sure if it’s just me but all of the boys seem to have really deep voices.

On the day itself a national siren blares throughout the country at 10 am for thirty seconds. People are expected to stop their cars, get out, and stand. I found myself in quite the fortuitous situation—standing in Rabin Square (the iconic spot where Israel’s champion of the peace process, Yitzchak Rabin, was assassinated) watching a demonstration by Israeli soldiers and surrounded by four main streets. The moment was surreal; it felt like something out of The Matrix or something. The siren was more muted then I expected, but everybody—busses, motorcycles, and cars—stopped in the middle of the busy street to commemorate for a moment the Holocaust.

Less than a week later came Yom Ha’Zikaron, a morose day for all Israelis, where the country commemorates all fallen soldiers. The erev of the day all non-essential businesses are required by law to close. No restaurants, bars, busses, or anything that can be seen as providing entertainment. That night I went to a program put on by Masa-- the huge umbrella organization that funds programs for Jews from all over the world to come to Israel. It took place on a foggy evening on top of a historical hill. While Masa does many great things, I find their large public events to be downright insulting. They shamelessly plug their “make-aliyah” agenda and are a big fan of flashy shows. So while I enjoyed the part of the event where I learned the personal stories of seven fallen soldiers, I found the light effects, fancy media techniques, and script a little over the top. I wish I could have been at a low-key communal event to see how the everyday Israeli pays tribute to those who have died for the country. As I was leaving the event, Alex and I struck an interesting conversation. Everybody talks about the tragedy of a young soldier killed but nobody mentions the tragedy that puts these kids at risk in the first place. Throughout the event we saw tons of pictures of the seven highlighted soldiers posing in uniform with their guns. They are made to be heroes and heroines: “This noble soldier died for her country,” but nobody stopped to ask: “Why is this eighteen year carrying around a gun?” Nobody seemed to think it was a shame to celebrate a young teenager in uniform, holding a weapon half his size. Just as much as a lost life is tragic, same is the conflict that makes them all be soldiers in the first place. My Israeli roommate Nurit told me that when babies are born in her family it has become a tradition to say to them: “May there be no army when you turn 18.” I like this sentiment because it expresses a reserved optimism that I wish more Israelis had; a hint that the conflict doesn’t have to be forever and that an end could be sight.

On Yom Ha’Zikaron itself another siren blares throughout the country, but this time I was in a small cafĂ© by my house. Everyone stopped mid-sentence to stand in silence. The transition from a day or mourning and remembrance into once of celebration is a strange juxtaposition of sadness and celebration. I think it is meant to symbolize the idea that from tragedy comes beauty and life. It also aptly describes the delicate balance of everyday Israel life. Israelis stubbornly try to live their lives through the trauma and despite it; life must go on, because to dwell on the conflict becomes too stifling. So, people prepare all week for Independence Day by adorning everything with Israel flags. And then, as if wound up like a spring on Yom Ha’Zikaron, go crazy on Yom Ha’Atzmaut. We started off at a house party on the roof of a rabbi’s home and then went to the public market for a party organized by the University. Once we got there the cops were already starting to shut things down because I think every person under the age of 35 in Jerusalem, came to the shuk party. It was madness but I’m glad I got to be a part of it all.

Getting ready to celebrate Israeli Independence Day. We tried to wear blue and white...

Well, three holidays down and three more interesting cultural experiences to think about. I hope this blog was as enlightening as the days were for me. Cheers.