In first person… Yom HaZikaron observance gets personal, metaphoric

Renee Cassin High School in Jerusalem sends disproportionate numbers of alumni into elite military units in the Army. In 1986, I attended its Yom HaZikaron observance, just before ceremonial air-raid sirens were sounded across the country, and people stopped for two minutes standing at attention across the country to commemorate Israel's fallen soldiers.

Still, kids are kids. As they giddily assembled in the school courtyard there was talk of this week's hot date, today's exam and tomorrow's Yom HaAtzmaut barbecue with friends and family.

The principal opened the ceremony and began to intone the names of alumni who died in defense of Israel, 1948…grandfathers…1956, 1967…fathers… 1973…older brothers…1981… Lebanon.

By the time we got to 1985, '86…their classmates and peers, the silence was deafening and tears started to fall. You could hear birds twittering in the courtyard. At 11 a.m. the first mournful tones of a distant siren sounded, building to a nearby crescendo that ripped through me like a metaphorical shofar.

Such overwhelming sadness. In Israel, everyone knows someone who has served or died in the army. It's very different from in the United States. Memorial Day is close and very personal. Somber radio music plays all day, and people visit military cemeteries to lay flowers at the graves of fallen loved ones and friends.

At sundown there is an immediate transition to Yom HaAtzmaut, and the mood changes from sadness to frivolity with plastic patishim (hammers) playfully bonked on strangers' heads, shaving-cream fights and street carnivals. I'll never forget that day.