Yom HaZikaron unites Israel, at least for the moment

One of the most solemn days in an Israeli's life is Yom HaZikaron, Remembrance Day — which was commemorated Wednesday — for those who fell in the struggle for the establishment of the state of Israel and its defense. That was why I was always sure that American Jews were familiar with the day and shared similar feelings about it.

It struck me one day how wrong I was, when, while walking to a memorial ceremony by the Israeli community at the Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, I passed by the board room where a bat mitzvah was being celebrated with loud music and gaiety. The following day I discussed the matter with an American friend from my Sequoia Hadassah chapter. She really appreciated that I was sharing my feelings with her and was very interested to learn more about Yom HaZikaron. Because as much as she loved Israel and even visited there a few times, she somehow wasn't aware of how Israelis felt about their Memorial Day.

The day commences countrywide with the sound of sirens proclaiming a two-minute silence, during which all activity and traffic cease. Regardless of where you are or what you are doing at that moment, you stop and stand still for two minutes. If you happen to be on the road — you turn your engine off and get out of the car. Imagine the bustling coastal road from Tel Aviv to Haifa when all traffic comes to a standstill! It's a truly awesome feeling that unites the entire country in a somber, reflective mood for a few minutes. Even as I am writing now I get goose flesh just thinking about it.

All day long flags are flown at half-mast, and memorial ceremonies are held all over the country. By law, all places of entertainment are closed on the evening of Yom HaZikaron, and broadcasting and educational bodies are required to stress the solemnity of the day. A remembrance torch is lit as a symbol to honor all the heroes and heroines of our generation: the partisan groups, the ghetto fighters and the underground defenders, the innocent victims of terror attacks and those who fought in the wars to defend the state of Israel since its establishment.

Here in Palo Alto, the Israeli community assembles every year on the eve of Yom HaZikaron. Everybody is there: young and old, children of all ages and busy Silicon Valley executives. Those who cannot spare the time to show up for other events make sure to be there on time, and not necessarily "Israeli time," because being late means standing-room only in the packed auditorium.

The ceremony is conducted by the Israeli Scouts, Tzabar. It is always a very emotionally charged event, and by the end of the evening there isn't a dry eye in the audience. We listen to stories and poems of and by soldiers. We sing together those familiar songs that we've been singing since kindergarten, and each year a few new ones are added. Anyone can submit the names of loved ones who died in the wars, and the list is always long.

One of the most famous passages read during the evening is "The Silver Platter" by writer Nathan Alterman. It is related to a statement by the first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, who said, "A state is not handed to a people on a silver platter."

Another poem that is always cited is "The Parade of the Fallen" by Hayim Hefer. Here are some excerpts:

"They come from the mountains,/ from the valley, from the desert,/ They come — names, faces, eyes,/ and stand for the parade./ They come in a masculine step,/ strong and sunburnt,/ They emerge from the shattered planes/ and from the burnt tanks;/ They rise from behind the rocks, from across/ the dunes, from connecting ditches,/ Brave as lions, tough as tigers, swift as eagles,/ And they pass one by one/ between two rows of angels/

"And so they stand, the light on their faces,/ And the Lord passes among them,/ With tears in His eyes He kisses their wounds/ And He says in a trembling voice/ to the white angels:/ These are my sons,/ these are my sons!"

Yom HaZikaron ends at sundown of the following day, giving way to the celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut, Independence Day, a transition that emphasizes the lasting tie between the sacrifice of the country's fallen and the continued existence of a vibrant and dynamic state of Israel.