Thursday, May 26, America. Just ended a business call with an attempt to set a
date for our next meeting. Someone suggested Monday. “Can’t do that,”
came the response. “Memorial Day. We’ll be out celebrating.” Memorial Day?
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Since arriving in the US, I’d been
bombarded by an endless array of ads promoting Memorial Day getaways, Memorial
Day parties, and, most of all, Memorial Day sales. The newspaper even carried a
comprehensive guide to leisure time activities for the upcoming holiday.
Conspicuously absent have been notices of Memorial Day ceremonies. I’m sure
they’re being planned, but I’m rather doubtful they will be well attended. Based
on my own irrefutable survey of friends and relatives, my guess is that the
overwhelming majority of Americans – well, at least New Yorkers – wouldn’t be
able to tell you where the neighborhood commemoration is taking place, or if
there is even going to be one. But you can bet your bottom dollar (and
advertising companies did just that) that that same majority is looking forward
to the long four-day weekend in the offing.
REWIND TO May 8. Maccabi Tel
Aviv faces off against Panathinaikos in the final game of the Euroleague
basketball championship in Barcelona, having earned its chance at the title
after a long, hard stretch. We (okay, I admit I had very little to do with the
team having gotten as far as it did, but I identify) came tantalizingly close to
claiming the trophy but were ultimately defeated. That was unfortunate, but
unfortunately we had far more unfortunate things to occupy us that evening,
being that the contest ended just as our own Memorial Day was about to begin.
Which brings me to three things I loved about the game, despite the
First, there was the compliance with our insistence that it
begin an hour earlier than originally scheduled so that our squad wouldn’t have
to play after the commencement of ceremonies back home for those who have been
sacrificed on the altar of our dreams. This, coupled with the announcement that
if the match should nevertheless run late due to overtime, at 8
p.m. sharp, Israel time, we were outtathere. As seriously as we take our
basketball, there are other things we take more seriously.
Just a few
minutes after the defeat, as dejected as the team members must have felt, they
turned on their cell phones and called home so as to be able to actually hear
the siren sound for our fallen, a wailing heard throughout the country that
literally brings the nation to a standstill. They had a far more profound loss
to bear than an eight-point spread to their disadvantage, and they needed to be
part of the experience in a visceral way. Staring at the hands on a foreign
clock in some far-away land just wasn’t going to do the trick. A contemporary
translation of Yehuda Halevi’s paean to Zion: “I may be in the West, but my
heart is in the East.”
Second was the fact that we were there at all,
center stage, not just watching from the sidelines as others played a game that
had nothing to do with us. Against all odds, here we were competing with the
best of them. And here was where we were going to stay. A battle lost, but
another season to come, and when it opens, we’ll be there, never again to leave
the court. Campaigns of boycott, divestment and sanctions be what they
may, Maccabi Tel Aviv is legit, as is the nation whose flag it proudly waves.
Zionism: making history, not at its mercy.
Third, the confluence of the
game ending and our grieving beginning was a stark reminder of the remarkable
transformation our people has undergone over the past century – on the playing
field as well as on the battlefield. Our much touted hi-tech conquest of Wall
Street is not the only narrative of our national revival. It’s also been a tale
of the reclamation of body, along with soil and soul. Who could have imagined
this sports finale 63 years ago, when Holocaust survivors were taken off the
boats at the shores of the Promised Land, handed a rifle they didn’t know how to
use, and sent to Latrun to fight for Jerusalem? Who could have imagined it more
than a century ago, in the wake of the Kishinev pogroms when our forebears,
defenseless and powerless, were butchered and raped?
AND YET, from the very
beginning of our national revival there were those who did. Already in 1898, Max
Nordau, then deputy chairman of the World Zionist Organization, issued an
impassioned plea for the physical regeneration of the Jewish people as a vital
element of the Zionist undertaking. He called for a new “muscular Judaism,” and
urged the establishment of Jewish sports clubs, which would eventually join
together to form the Maccabi World Union, inspired by Herzl’s defiant
declaration that a new generation of Maccabees would rise again. Which,
in a roundabout way, brings me back to the distinction between Memorial Day in
Israel and the United States.
The commercialization and frivolity that
dominates the occasion in America is all but inconceivable over here, when
restaurants, movie theaters and places of entertainment are all closed and
television and radio broadcasts are restricted to thematically related
programming, somber and introspective. For us, a Memorial Day picnic would be as
incongruous as a 9/11 barbecue and as offensive as a Holocaust dance. Why are
things so different across the ocean?
It is not a matter of immediacy. America’s
wars are not in the distant past. Its soldiers are still fighting in Iraq and
Afghanistan, and the trauma of Vietnam is still very real for an entire
generation that chooses to spend the day at the beach.
Neither is it a
matter of numbers. War dead in the US amount to some 0.43 percent of the
country’s current population. Our casualties equal only 0.37% of our citizenry.
Indeed, a far larger proportion of our fallen have living relatives, but I don’t
believe the answer can be found in the manipulation of statistics.
have to delve deeper, into the collective memory of our people – and the rituals
we have devised that create an awareness of peoplehood that transcends time and
place. Each of us took part in the Exodus from Egypt, stood at Mount Sinai,
experienced the destruction of the Temple and was exiled from Jerusalem. And
when we played that final Euroleague game, it was once again the Maccabees
taking on the Greeks – in a country we remember for the Inquisition and from
which we were expelled in the same year that Columbus discovered America. When
centuries later, the Mayflower set sail for its shores, how many of today’s
Americans feel that they were on board?
And that is the difference. With all
that divides us in this tiny country of ours, with all that is fractious, we
share a historical consciousness that we have carefully cultivated through
centuries of dispersion. In Israel, Memorial Day is communal. In America, it is
personal. There, if you are not mourning family or friend, you are more
than likely to set out and shop. Here, all of the same tribe, we feel an inner
compulsion to remember and stop.
Some things you can only discover at
Macy’s.The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and
a member of the Jewish Agency executive. The opinions expressed in this column
are his own.