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December 20, 2014 | 28th Kislev 5775

Memory I

Galilee Diary #233
May 15, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

"Your glory, O Israel,
Lies slain on your heights;
How have the mighty fallen!"
-II Samuel 1:19

David's beautiful and moving eulogy for Saul and Jonathan has become the automatic text for military eulogies, and is naturally often recited at modern Israeli funerals and memorial observances. This is memorial season in Israel: on the last day of Pesach, traditionally, the morning service includes Yizkor, the memorial service for all of our loved ones no longer with us; a few days later comes Yom Hashoah; and a week later, Yom Hazikaron, the memorial day for Israel's war dead (and now also for those killed in terrorist attacks). As spring gives way to summer, the land warms up and dries up, we switch our life rhythm to daylight savings, the school year winds down - a time of bittersweet transition - we stop and look back. We stop and remember those who made us what we are - both personally and nationally - and we pause to consider, if only for a fleeting moment, that now, without them, we are somehow less than we were or might have been.

Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron are secular rituals that have developed an orthodoxy of their own. They are seen my most Israelis as purely national, secular observances, unattached to traditional Jewish modes of mourning. On each day, air raid sirens go off throughout the country at a set hour (on Yom Hashoah, at 11 am; on Yom Hazikaron, at 8 pm and 11 am). Everyone is expected to stop whatever s/he is doing and stand at attention for the duration of the siren. It's always awkward if you are driving and don't have the radio on and it takes you a minute to figure out why all the cars are pulling off and people getting out. And of course the tabloids love to expose ultra orthodox - or Arabs - who ignored the siren.

The radio operates, but only broadcasts lugubrious music, while the TV broadcasts Holocaust movies or features on war heroes. Of course, if you happen to turn to a foreign station via satellite or cable, it is business as usual.

Schools and communites hold memorial ceremonies that are generally highly formulaic and ritualized: the readers standing in a line in white shirts, the non-functional sound system, the well-known poems and descriptive passages, read with sad earnestness but often not really heard or understood by the congregation/audience; a few sad songs, a memorial prayer. On Yom Hashoah there are the six candles; on Yom Hazikaron the Israeli custom of "fire script" - the word "yizkor" (remember) spelled out in oil-soaked rags on a wire frame and set alight. And then, outside, people socialize awkwardly, not sure if it is OK, but not ready just to go home. Sometimes there are moments that genuinely call forth tears; sometimes it is, like any ritual, "just" a ritual that we know we have to do, with or without feeling.

For me, these days provide an opportunity to reflect on how we construct and sanctify our collective memories. What we choose to remember and to ritualize says something about who we think we are and who we want our children to be.

The Pesach Hagadah says that in every generation we must see ourselves as though we personally came forth from Egypt - and now, perhaps, as though we rode the train to Auschwitz and withstood the Syrian onslaught in the Golan in 1973. The currency of memory has not depreciated through centuries of Passover seders. I wonder if our newly invented rituals will be able to hold their value as well.

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