Editor’s note: This week’s article is written by Shmuel Sackett, co-founder, along with Moshe Feiglin, of Zo Artzeinu, Manhigut Yehudit, and Zehut.
* * * * *
I can live to be 1,000 and will never get used to the fact that Memorial Day in America is a fun, action-packed day for shoppers, beach goers, and roller-coaster riders. I did some Internet surfing and found some great Memorial Day sales at Sears, JC Penney, Kohls, Bloomingdales, Macy’s, Banana Republic, Nordstrom, Gap, Old Navy, and Walmart. The JC Penney website actually said the following: “Enjoy our Memorial Day sales.” It even suggested that one should “Extend the fun to the whole family.”
Let me ask you a question. Isn’t Memorial Day supposed to be somber? A day of remembrance, mourning, and reflection? A day to pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of brave men and women who lost their lives fighting for the United States? Do you have any idea how many heroes we are talking about?
I did some research and found that from the American Revolutionary War until today – are you ready for this? – a total of 666,441 American soldiers have lost their lives in battle. If it’s hard for you to think about a war in 1776, let me highlight some relatively recent numbers. In WWII, 291,557 soldiers were killed while 47,424 were killed in Vietnam. After 9/11, American forces went to war in Afghanistan and lost 1,954 soldiers while a whopping 3,836 have been killed in Iraq.
After all this bloodshed, do you really think you should spend Memorial Day – the one day a year dedicated to the memory of these men and women – by shopping for a microwave or jeans? Do you think you should “enjoy” sales on this day or that it should be a day of “fun” for the whole family?
One of the websites I looked at (of a store called “Junees”) had a sale for people shopping online. To qualify you needed to use a special coupon code during checkout. Any idea what the code was? The word: “Memorial.” How touching…
The website DealNews.com stated that shopping online allows for plenty of time on Memorial Day to do other things. It suggested the following: “Break out your summer whites and fire up the grill.” I guess going to a military cemetery was out of the question…
The Disney World website homepage was full of wonderful suggestions on how to enjoy the park on Memorial Day even though large crowds were expected. “Start from the back,” it suggested, and “stay late” since most people don’t know the park is open late for your “Memorial Day enjoyment.” There’s simply nothing like bonding with Mickey Mouse on such a somber day…
Let me say this loud and clear. A society that celebrates Memorial Day with sales, picnics, and amusement park fun is a society in trouble. Actually, it’s worse than that. It’s downright sick. A total of 666,441 soldiers gave their life for America and the country can’t take one day off to honor them?
Let’s pause for a moment and review how Memorial Day is commemorated (not “celebrated”) in Israel. All stores, except gas stations, are closed. Amusement parks are closed. Beaches are empty. Israeli Mickey Mouses (or is it Mickey Mice?) are home from work. Nobody is grilling and nobody is enjoying. Following Jewish tradition, the day begins the night before with a siren at 8 p.m. and the entire country stands for a moment of silence. Some stand with heads down, others say Tehillim to themselves, but everyone is quiet and respectful. About 30 percent of the country attends some sort of “Yom Ha’Zikaron” (that’s “Memorial Day” in Hebrew) commemoration in cities around Israel, while the rest of the country watches one on TV. There is an eerie silence in the air and most of the people shed tears for soldiers they never even knew. The next morning, there is a siren at 11 a.m. and military cemeteries from Eilat to Kiryat Shemonah are packed with people crying, hugging, praying, and reflecting. While “The Gap” in New York is open on Memorial Day, the ones in Israel are closed.
People have told me that the reason for all this is simple. In Israel everyone knows someone who has lost a loved one in a war. In my shul alone, there are two regular attendees who lost a brother, one in the ’56 war and one in the ’67 war. And there easily over 50 people in my shul who lost friends and comrades in war. Compare that to America. Who in your shul has a relative, friend, or even a distant acquaintance who was killed in battle while fighting for the United States? Probably nobody.
Yet, I am sorry to say, I do not accept this answer. Not having a personal connection to one of the 666,441 U.S. soldiers is not an excuse to “enjoy” the day off nor use the word “Memorial” while shopping online at Junees.
If you live in a free country, you need to realize and appreciate that the freedom you enjoy came at a price. Yes, you may not personally know the heroes who sacrificed their lives so you can enjoy baseball and apple pie, but they were definitely there. They fought and died so that you can live in a beautiful home, have that good job, and send your children to the yeshiva of your choice. The very fact that you can walk freely to shul, dunk in a mikveh, and carry on Shabbat within your community eruv is because of these 666,441 men and women.
I firmly believe that every Jew must come home as soon as possible to Israel, but until that day arrives, we owe a debt of gratitude to the land of the free and the home of the brave. Torah institutions have flourished in America and I am religious today because of the wonderful education I received in various New York yeshivas and shuls. To me, it’s not about knowing the fallen soldiers personally. Rather, it’s about acknowledging their commitment, their selflessness, and their ultimate sacrifice.
I thank Hashem every day for bringing my grandparents to America in the early 1900’s. Where would I be today if they had stayed in Europe? Would I even be alive? And if I was alive, would I still be Jewish? Three of my four grandparents emigrated from what is today Ukraine and the fourth was from Lithuania. When they came to America, they were allowed to practice Yiddishkeit without oppression. My parents, of blessed memory, were both born in America, lived a Jewish life, and sent my siblings and me to yeshiva day schools. My father fought in WWII and so did his brother, who was awarded two purple hearts. My mother’s two brothers also fought in WWII and we were raised on giving thanks and appreciating what others had done.
Today’s youth are far from appreciating anything. They focus, almost exclusively, on smartphones, selfies, and Snapchat. I fear for their future but point the finger – not at them – but at a society that takes one of the few meaningful days a year and turns it into fun and games. We have a year to change that – until next Memorial Day. Let’s make it happen.