When the siren went off at 10 a.m. on Holocaust Remembrance day in Jerusalem, the emotion I felt was shocking.
People waited in the street, preparing for the silence, but when it actually happened it was eerie. Everyone just stopped. With the echoing siren and the all-encompassing quiet, the feeling of what it means to be a Jew in Israel was focused in this moment. Caught off guard, everything I felt for this country hit me in those two minutes.
It has been a year of firsts since I arrived eight months ago. It started with the holidays in September and October – the celebration of Rosh Hashana, atonement on Yom Kippur, dancing with the Torah on Succot. November had Operation Pillar of Defense – the first time Tel Aviv had rockets fired at it since the Gulf War.
The month of April is heavy. In quick succession are Holocaust Remembrance Day, Remembrance Day for the Fallen and Independence Day.
The last two were never marked on my calendar before.
As an American, Christmas and Easter took precedent, partly because my dad is Catholic but mostly because it’s mainstream.
Hanukka was cancelled because my mom thought eight extra days of gifts was excessive.
Being Jewish was like having a secret identity. In January 2012, thanks to Taglit- Birthright, my love affair (or brainwashing) with Israel began. I became the poster-child for the trip – the embodiment of reuniting the Diaspora and the Jewish nation.
This place is an enigma. It’s hard to understand, yet everyone is so certain it must be here. But what exactly does a Jewish state for the Jewish people mean? There isn’t one right answer.
On the days when the country remembers the victims of the Holocaust, the victims of terror, the fallen soldiers and despite it all, a people that persevered – they have a home, and it’s here.
I went to Mount Herzl over Shabbat. It’s one of my favorite places in Jerusalem and possibly in Israel. It’s probably strange to have a military cemetery be a “favorite place,” but for me it represents what Israel is: Sacrifice, ingenuity and honor.
Looking at the graves and the ages of the fallen, there is no getting used to seeing “son, 18,” “daughter, 23,” or “father, 40.”
Even with limited Hebrew, I read the names and paid respect.
Through its people is the strength Israel represents. Lior is a third-generation Israeli. She has jet-black hair, light green eyes and beautiful olive skin. On one of my first days in the country I sat at her kitchen table eating schnitzel and pasta.
She introduced me to her grandfather, he didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Hebrew, so Lior explained that he had escaped Hungary during the war.
In the kitchen, Lior’s dad went over to kiss her mom as she washed the dishes and then her uncle walked in with his wife and three children, back from vacation in Eilat.
Her sister arrived shortly after with her newborn baby, and amid this chaos of family sat her grandfather, the reason for all of them.
In August, I spent two weeks with a family, volunteering on their farm. Adi, the mother, had a collection of things from her grandfather, who also escaped during the war. She told the volunteers that her grandfather was studying in university when his friends came in, nervous and scared, and said he needed to leave. Not just the school, not just the town, but to get as far away as possible. He got on his motorbike and drove for days, barely stopping.
Eventually, he made it to Palestine.
Adi’s husband told us later that while the story of her grandfather was impressive, Adi had a story all her own.
Adi was raised on a kibbutz in the north near the border with Lebanon. On the kibbutz the children slept in a separate building from the parents. When she was three or four, terrorists came to the kibbutz and held the children hostage. During the rescue effort, Adi was saved, but was left with a huge scar, her skin indented from her shoulder to her elbow.
Adi has five amazing children, is active in environmental preservation, an agricultural entrepreneur, fun-loving and hardworking.
In Hebrew her name means jewel. Adi is precious and also one of the strongest women I’ve met to date.
I met Shimi when he came as a soldier on a Birthright trip. He moved to Israel from Kazakhstan when he was three, with his family. Shimi told our group that in Kazakhstan, his grandfather could not practice Judaism openly and that in his home he kept his religious books and any Jewish objects in a secret room, hidden behind a door fashioned as a bookcase.
Today, Shimi lives in a mostly workingclass neighborhood of a Tel Aviv suburb.
He invited me to spend Shabbat with his family for his dad’s birthday. We sat on the roof with views of the sea and around the table were his grandparents, aunts, uncles, his younger brother Rafi (home for the weekend from the army) and his youngest brother, Emmanuel. We welcomed the Shabbat, Shimi and his brothers trading off on the singing and then Shimi taking the lead for Kiddush.
It was powerful to think that almost everyone around the table had once been in a place so different than this. From a small, dark, hidden room to now, an open roof and the sounds of family singing praise as loud as they want.
In November, when Operation Pillar of Defense began, I spoke with Lior and she told me she was terrified because her younger brother was on the Gaza border, waiting for orders to go in. I sat with Shimi in Tel Aviv and he said his friends and cousins were being called for reserve duty and he was waiting to be called up himself.
He wanted to be called. I understood, because I wanted to do something, too.
I have become possessive of Israel. This country has welcomed me with open arms and given me so much. It gave me a connection to a people and heritage I never knew.
When my mom and brother came to visit Israel I took them to Masada. It’s an impressive sight, with a torrid history. The story goes that the Jews who were barricaded on the mountain chose death by their own hand to escape a far worse fate as slaves in the Roman Empire. I tried to relate the symbolism as it had been explained to me. “We will never let Masada fall again,” people say.
Near us were three soldiers, standing guard. My mom asked if she could get in a picture and the soldiers were happy to oblige. My brother, a captain in the US Marine Corps, told them, “We have a lot of respect for you guys.”
The soldiers came back a few minutes later with cookies and asked if we wanted any. My family, being humble and embarrassed Americans, politely declined. I understood this as an invitation to conversation and, unable to refuse anything sweet (including soldiers), readily accepted.
More at ease, my family started asking questions. The soldiers were around 19 and 20 and were getting ready to go into officer training. They were proud of their service and proud of Israel. My family was impressed, but I was conflicted.
Every time I look at my friends, I see them in their uniforms, and I understand the service they give to this country. Its necessary and its heartbreaking – they are keeping us safe, but I want them to stay safe. Life is appreciated here, more than I’ve felt in any other place. Maybe because they’ve worked so hard for it.
The author is originally from New York and is a contributor to The Jerusalem Post.