I went last night, as I do almost every year, to our local ceremony remembering Israel’s fallen. I’ve lived in this city going on 12 years. Where at first I knew none of the names, there are now three that I recognize, families that I know.
Each year, I am grateful that there aren’t more; desperately, almost embarrassing grateful not to be sitting up in the front.
“Who is sitting there?” Shmulik asked me last night. He’s been to these ceremonies before, but never paid attention. That is where the mayor sits, his assistants and deputies. The chief rabbis of our city and others. But most significantly, this is where the bereaved families sit. They are separated by a low barrier so they won’t be bothered, so they can grieve a bit in private, as they sit among thousands who have come to honor them and the sons and daughters they have lost.
The ceremony begins just moments before 8:00 p.m. It is windy and cool this year; sometimes it is unbearably hot. The park, where tonight there will be singing and dancing and fireworks, was packed last night for the Memorial Day ceremony. It is a unique and amazing yearly event – to cry with all your heart one day and then smile and dance and be happy the next.
We sit there knowing we will dance tomorrow night, knowing these families will not.
Young teenagers walk onto the stage, each carrying large Israeli flags. They are divided into two lines, each moving to the side of the stage where they will remain throughout the ceremony. A man comes to the front; I don’t know his name but he has a beautiful, deep voice – he will lead the ceremony, introduce each of the speakers and singers.
He tells us in a moment, the siren will sound and asks us to stand. He asks the parents to watch over the children so that they don’t make noise and for other adults to watch if children here without parents are overly noisy. Then there is silence. Thousands are waiting for the siren. We wait …
It begins with a quiet wail, gaining and reaching the top. Unlike the real air raid siren, the sound does not go up and down – it is an endless cry that reaches into your heart and fills your eyes. They burn and you try to blink them away. I stand beside one son; another is at home with his wife. What right do I have to cry? God has blessed me – my sons are alive and safe.
The siren ends – not abruptly, but as it began, a slow decline to silence. The flag is lowered and we are asked to sit down again.
More teenagers come forward – there are four this time. The two in the middle begin a slow recitation of the names of those we have lost from our city – there are so many, too many. The father of the last to fall is asked to say the mourners prayer and the audience stands again and answers “Amen” at the appropriate times.
The mayor speaks; others as well. Songs – horribly sad songs of love of land and family, of country of life are sung. Your heart breaks and you want it to end. You want to go home and never come to another ceremony, knowing you will be there again next year, and the year after, and after that.
In all the years I have been in Israel, I have missed very few. Perhaps when my children were very young, or I was pregnant and sitting on a hard floor for an hour was torture. I know when Elie was in the army, I couldn’t go. I couldn’t sit there and listen and think. I was ashamed of my cowardice and begged the families to forgive me.
The first time I went was in Elie’s last year in the army – when he went with me. That, somehow, I managed to do. Last night, I sat next to Shmulik and as with Elie, his being there gave me comfort.
Memorial Day in Israel is as it should be – it is not a day of picnics and sales. It is not about barbecues and fun. It is agony; it is pain. It is tears and sad songs on the radio. It is a candle burning in my house in their memory, and it is the constant knowledge that without their sacrifice, we would not sing and dance tonight. We would not be free, here in our land.
May God bless the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces and forever keep them in His heart, as they are in ours.
Visit A Soldier’s Mother.Paula R. Stern