I have issues to deal with – not just the tight print schedules that are a
natural part of the spring routine for the editor of a weekly Israeli
publication; I have emotional issues. The reason is the only-in-Israel
combination that takes us from Passover to Holocaust Day and then, overnight,
from Remembrance Day to Independence Day.
This week, I realized with a
jolt that I can recall in great detail my first Independence Day in Israel, in
1980, but nothing at all about that Remembrance Day.
My first Yom
Ha’atzmaut was a learning experience in many ways. I was part of a Nahal garin
(army group) on a southern kibbutz, a million miles away from London, the city I
had left when I made aliya in July 1979.
The kibbutz had some kind of
entertainment program planned, but in an act expressing our own independence I
was part of a small group of friends who sneaked away. This very much went
against the collective spirit of both the kibbutz and the garin, but it suited
me. I was flattered that anybody – even other “outsiders” – had thought to
invite “the English girl” along.
When they told me they wanted to go to
Sderot to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut and meet up with friends, I had no idea what
would be involved.
Those were different days in Israel. How different,
I’d only learn to appreciate later on.
For a start, even if we had asked
permission, it is very unlikely a car or someone with a driver’s license could
have been found to take us to the town. There were very few private vehicles at
And since none of the friends they wanted to see had phones at
home, we just had to assume that somehow everybody would meet up.
recall, we boldly set out on foot, safe in the knowledge that we’d pick up a
“tremp” – hitch a ride – at some point. In my memory, there was a prevailing
smell of orange blossom and melons.
Hitchhiking in those days was common,
frequently the only form of transport, in fact. Our mistake was to assume that
perfect strangers – or at least those good-hearted enough to offer us a lift –
would be traveling on the road on the evening of Independence Day.
took us much longer than we had reckoned to reach Sderot, which at the time
symbolized the Negev development towns.
In the 1980s, it was the North
that was under missile attack from Lebanon. Israel was still in control of Gaza
and the area was considered safe.
By the time we reached the town center,
we had missed any artistic performances or sing-alongs that had been arranged –
still a staple of Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations across the country – and the only
entertainment was provided by a few youths who were wandering around armed with
blue-and- white plastic inflatable hammers.
These, I discovered, were used
to playfully “bop” other revelers on the head. I seemed to be farther away from
England than ever.
While I don’t miss being tapped on the head – however
playfully – I miss the innocence of those days when, somehow, being hit like
that didn’t seem to spark fights or carry the risk of a lawsuit.
there had been a firework display – another lasting tradition – but we
apparently had missed that, too.
The only good thing about being in a
small town after all that passed for action had ended was that it made it easy
to find my girlfriends’ schoolmates. Everybody was at home. Somebody’s
We seemed to gather people into our merry band at a terrific pace –
some were friends, some were cousins, and some were neighbors who had covered a
far shorter distance than I had, both physically and
Almost all the families had previously gathered at some
point to watch the traditional parades and programs on Israel Television in the
days when Channel 1 was the one and only station, providing what has been called
“the communal campfire” effect.
Some of the details get hazy here, but I
remember a bunch of about 10 of us ending up in the garden of the person with
the largest home (and a heart to match). We were eating watermelon, cracking
sunflower seeds and drinking homemade lemonade.
I was struck by the way
somebody’s mother welcomed this large group, including several unfamiliar faces,
that arrived unannounced late at night and quickly produced food and sustenance
and an offer for us to sleep over.
It was then I learned that there was
more to “hospitality” than issuing an invitation, weeks in advance, to come over
for a drink.
This was territory familiar to the patriarch Abraham, not
common in the London I had left.
However, since we had skipped the
kibbutz without telling anyone, we had to return that night. After hitching a
short ride or two and walking what seemed a great distance, we finally arrived
back – far more people than we had started out.
The next day we got up
late – a luxury on a kibbutz – and took part in a communal picnic.
SO many memories of that first Independence Day, I find it particularly
perturbing that I can recall nothing at all of Remembrance Day – not even
standing still for the siren, although I’m sure I did.
Perhaps it was
because when life temporarily stops on a kibbutz it lacks the shock effect of
when it halts, suspended for the duration of the siren, in a big city – or even
a small town like Sderot.
Most likely, however, it was because I didn’t
yet have a face to keep in mind as I stood still. Apart from Yoni Netanyahu,
killed during the Entebbe rescue operation, I would have found it hard to name
to any Israeli soldier who died in action. There are cases when ignorance is
The first military funeral I attended was that year – the father
of one of my garin, killed in a road accident while returning from reserve
I was in London, after military service, when the First Lebanon War
broke out in June 1982. And unlike the events of that first Remembrance Day, I
recall, with that slow-motion effect that accompanies the shock of bereavement,
precisely how I opened a letter from one of the friends who had given me my
first Yom Ha’atzmaut experience. In it, taking obvious care over her words, she
wrote of the death of someone we had both been close to.
she posted the letter, she had hastily added a postscript with the name of
another fallen kibbutznik.
The list of fallen soldiers and the victims of
terror sadly has grown longer in the passing decades. And I always spare a
thought, too, for those whose families have to cope with something worse than
death, not knowing the fates of their loved ones, missing in
Every year, there are those who suggest that the country separate
Remembrance Day from Independence Day – the juxtaposition is too jarring for
some to handle. But for me, 33 years after my initiation into Israeli life,
nothing could be more natural.
Praying the list grows no more, I recall
with pain those who paid the ultimate price; none of them, I’m sure, would be
sorry to know that this year, the 65th Independence Day – despite all the
changes – families and friends will still gather to eat, drink and celebrate. I
rather fancy that they’re gathered here with us – the spirits of Independence
Day.The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem