Keeping the flame burning

The father of the Jewish liturgical revolution, a Hebrew literature lecturer, an Orthodox feminist and a fundraiser and businessman are the Jerusalemites who have been chosen to light torches on Mount Herzl at the end of Remembrance Day

torch521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The official Independence Day events open with a torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl at the end of Remembrance Day. It makes a sharp transition from the somber atmosphere of the memorial ceremonies across the country to the festive nature of independence celebrations. Over the years, some have said that the transition is too severe, but it has remained unchanged, a mark of the heavy price the independent State of Israel has been required to pay since its creation.
While many of the official ceremonies that were held in the past have gone by the wayside due to cynicism and routine, the opening Independence Day ceremony has remained a valued one, as it allows the state to honor many of its outstanding citizens by choosing them to light a torch.
Ministers, Knesset members, the IDF chief of staff, members of the diplomatic corps, bereaved families and, of course, families of the torch-lighters attend the event.
Every year, the ceremony has a different theme, selected by the Information Department of the Education Ministry, which produces the ceremony and selects the 12 torch-lighters. The ceremony, which is broadcast live on all major TV channels and radio stations, includes drills by representatives of all IDF and police units.
It ends with a solemn declaration by the Knesset speaker, which marks the beginning of Independence Day. This is immediately followed by a colorful fireworks display.
Each torch-lighter utters a short statement beginning with the same sentence: “I, [son or daughter] of... born in...,” followed by a brief description of the person’s deeds in connection with the year’s theme.
All end with the same phrase: “for the glory of the State of Israel.” The national anthem, “Hatikva,” then closes the ceremony.
For all its consistency, the ceremony has been known to involve unexpected deviations and the occasional scandal. One such incident almost occurred in the 2003 ceremony, when torch-lighter Naomi Nalbadian, a nurse at Hadassah University Medical Center’s rehabilitation center who was representing Israel’s Armenian community, announced her intention to mention the 1915 genocide of her people at the hands of the Turks. She ultimately agreed to refrain from doing so to avoid further damaging the fragile relations between Israel and Turkey.
The following year, the producers of the ceremony decided to give the public the opportunity to choose the 12th torch lighter via SMS, under the banner of Sports in Israel. It ended with their choosing Eli Ohana, then captain of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, and left Mickey Berkowitz, the acclaimed captain of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team, off of the list.
Following public criticism, the two were invited to light the last torch together. But the whole thing left such a bad taste that voting via phone is no longer exercised.
Because it is meant to be a symbol of national consensus, political speeches are usually banned at the ceremony. However, in 2005, on the eve of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip under prime minister Ariel Sharon, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, an opponent of the plan, used his speech to express his protest. He received harsh criticism for mentioning the “pioneers who walk ahead of the people, from Hanita [a kibbutz in the North, a symbol of the pioneering era before independence] to Kfar Darom and Kiryat Arba [the former soon after evacuated, and both of them settlements beyond the Green Line].”
During 2011’s ceremony, Yoel Schalit – brother of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit – and his girlfriend, Ya’ara Winkler, burst into the restricted official area of the ceremony, shouting, “Gilad is still alive!” as part of their protest campaign to obtain the soldier’s release. During the ceremony, one of the torchlighters, Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg – father of Rivka Holtzberg, who was killed along with her husband in the terror attack on the Chabad House in Mumbai – changed the official ending sentence to “the glory of the Land of Israel” (instead of the State of Israel), in keeping with Chabad’s views.
The most recent event was a tragic one – the death of officer Hila Bezaleli during the rehearsals for last year’s ceremony, following the collapse of a light fixture that also injured seven soldiers. As a gesture of consolation, Rivlin invited her mother to join him as he lit his torch.
This year’s theme is “Legacy and Tradition,” and four of the torch-lighters are residents of Jerusalem: Dr. Meir Buzaglo, the originator of the recent renaissance in Jewish liturgical songs (piyutim); Bilha Ben-Eliyahu, an eighth-generation Jerusalemite and a lecturer on Israeli literature; Prof. Tamar Ross, a Jewish studies scholar at Bar-Ilan University and an Orthodox feminist; and David Blumberg, a businessman and fund-raiser for the new National Library.