As I was wondering what to write about for this column, my thoughts were
interrupted by the tremendous noise outside my kitchen window. Looking out, I
saw that the music blaring through an amplifier was accompanied by flashing
lights, and a large crowd following a wedding canopy on a platform being pulled
by a decorated truck. Police had temporarily stopped traffic on what is a main
road in the capital, and at least one officer appeared to be singing along to the
song: “Ani ma’amin,” “I believe,” confirming faith in the coming of the
The joyous parade was not part of some extraordinary public
matrimonial celebration, however, but a ceremony marking the arrival of a new
Torah scroll at a local synagogue.
My annoyance at the commotion was
replaced by the recognition of one of those “Only in Israel” moments – one that
came during one of those “Only in Israel” periods, as it happens. The weeks
between Passover and Independence Day have their own flavor in this particular
part of the world, from the special events during the Passover vacation; the
increasingly popular Mimouna celebrations at the end of the holiday; the somber
nature of Holocaust Remembrance Day, with its two-minute siren; and the truly
unique but incredibly Israeli combination of consecutive Remembrance Day for
Fallen Soldiers and Independence Day.
Life seems full of such
quintessentially Israeli incidents lately. Sitting on a bus traveling from
Jerusalem to Tel Aviv on Holocaust Remembrance Day a week ago – and yes, the
buses stop and passengers stand for the duration of the siren – I overheard a
conversation that was definitely Israeli. It’s not that people in other
countries don’t talk on mobile phones on public transport, but nowhere else in
the world would you hear a woman in her twenties calling her friend to tell her
she “must tune in to Army Radio, they’ve got all these great, sad songs
I couldn’t help myself – talking uninhibitedly to strangers is one
of the pleasures of Israeli life for someone of my nature who was born and
raised in London. “Just wait,” I pointed out, “Next week the songs for
Remembrance Day are even better.”
We ended up briefly discussing our
favorites in that blue-and-white musical genre known as Shirei dikaon
(depressing songs): Chava Alberstein’s “Kulanu rikma enoshit ahat haya” – “We
are all part of a living human tapestry” – compared to almost anything by Yehuda
We agreed that certain songs – “Ma Avarech?” (What blessings
should I give this child?) and “D’maot shel malachim” (The Tears of Angels)
should only be played in times of sadness.
My neighborhood, like most
Jewish neighborhoods throughout the country, marks Remembrance Day with a
ceremony followed by a public sing-along of the sad songs that we all know and
love. The next day, there are happy Eretz Yisrael singalongs – and a televised
broadcast from the President’s Residence of the No. 1 Citizen singing his
favorites alongside the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff
following the ceremony for outstanding soldiers. This takes place a few hours
before the Annual International Bible Quiz and the Israel Prize award
Even this year’s hugely overblown discussions on women singing
in public in religious circles did not put an end to the tradition.
year’s Independence Day hit, by the way, was a rock version of the Beatles’
“When I’m 64” sung by the once hugely popular Churchills band which reunited for
I wonder what our enemies make of it. Is it amusing,
confusing, bemusing or just a sign of Israeli chutzpah that no matter what,
we’re still here – and still singing? Not only are we singing, we still have a
lot to sing about.
True, costs are rising and even middle-class wage
earners are cutting down on electricity and fuel consumption in the face of the
recent price hikes. It is aggravating that “The Start-Up Nation” can be the envy
of the hi-tech world for its creativity and inventiveness and yet still be the
country where a young woman officer needlessly lost her life when the lighting
system collapsed on the stage during rehearsals for the main Remembrance-
Independence Day handover.
Lt. Hila Bezaleli was killed as much by the
“it will be all right” mentality as by the metal pylon that crushed her. For
sure there is something ironic about a country renowned for its advanced defense
technology and daring and yet unable to stop missile attacks that send as many
as one million people into shelters. The gaps between the haves and the
have-nots, the ultra- Orthodox and the religious and secular, and Jew and Arab
are all growing, and all cause for concern. And yet...
And yet the recent
United Nations Happiness Index survey put Israel in the 14th spot worldwide. It
is a respectable achievement for any country, let alone one that sings “When I’m
64” in an age-appropriate year; not to mention a country whose citizens not only
sing sad songs on Remembrance Day but truly remember loved ones who have fallen
in wars and terror attacks.
Statistics can lie and far be it from me to
automatically trust any report drawn up on paper with the UN’s logo, but somehow
even with all the noise, that defiant disregard for differentiating between the
public and private domain and the general indefinable balagan, I can see why I’m
not the only one in Israel whose place on the happiness index is above that of
the average citizen of other Western countries including Spain, France and
Japan. Or even my native UK, as a matter of fact.
The Land of Milk and
Honey is the only country where the price of cottage cheese could spark a social
It is also the only one where police would not only stop the
cars to allow a Torah scroll to be dedicated in style but would participate in
It’s the only place where enjoying sad or happy songs
together is a national pastime. It’s certainly the only one where you can sing,
shout, argue and express everything from affection to infuriation in Hebrew –
right there, outside my kitchen window, on the main road.
It’s the only
place where main streets in the capital are named after rabbis, Jewish monarchs
and the Twelve Tribes, for that matter.
The Jerusalem Post’s first annual
conference convenes in New York today under the title “Fighting for the Zionist
Life here is not a dream, but it is far from being a nightmare.
Just look at the lives of our neighbors – Syria gained independence from France
two years before we gained independence from Britain. It did not have much
reason to celebrate its 66th anniversary this month – or any previous
anniversary, compared to Israel.
The happiness survey measured such
factors as health care, economic security, political freedom and education – all
things Israelis love to argue about, and are wonderfully free to do so – in
Hebrew, in the open, with perfect and non-perfect strangers.
Of course we
have enemies, but when it comes down to it, I can’t help but feel that part of
the animosity is fueled by envy. We’re still here: Not only alive but happy.
Definitely a peculiar people in a peculiar land.
The writer is editor of
The International Jerusalem Post.