Independence Day and Remembrance Day: Two days that define life in Israel

When the long day of mourning draws to a close, as sunset merges with night, a siren is sounded and suddenly there is laughter and music and fireworks, as Israel begins to celebrate.

MOURNING AT Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery on Memorial Day, on May 8, 2019 (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
MOURNING AT Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery on Memorial Day, on May 8, 2019
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
There is only a split second that separates joyful Independence Day from the sad day that precedes it. On the 4th of Iyar, Israel remembers all the valiant men and women who fell in active service in all of its wars, and in the struggle that led to the establishment of the state.
It is hard to go from grief to joy in the space of a heartbeat. For 24 hours, there are usually civil, military and religious services and the lighting of memorial candles in army camps, schools, synagogues and public places. Flags are lowered to half-mast, and the whole country comes to a standstill, as two minutes of silence are observed. At the sound of the siren, traffic stops, and people stop talking in mid-sentence. Everything is frozen for those two minutes, which encapsule so many bitter and tragic memories. With the current pandemic, who knows how we will be able to commemorate the day or what restrictions will be in place by then.
The cream of the nation lies in military cemeteries – everyone knows someone who is buried there. You walk along the rows of tombstones and, as tears slide down your cheeks, you read the inscriptions: Avi, aged 20; Alon, aged 18; Yigael, aged 21. Some are older – they had lived to marry and father children, now orphaned, whose only memory of their father is often just a photograph.
Israel is a country where so many parents have been called upon to bury their children, and the earth is saturated with tears. In the whole land, there is barely a family that has not been affected in the past 72 years, which has not lost a husband, a father or a brother, or a cousin or sweetheart.
When the long day of mourning draws to a close, as sunset merges with night, a siren is sounded – a long mournful note fraught with sorrow. Then the stars appear, and suddenly there is laughter and music and fireworks, as Israel begins to celebrate its Independence Day.
Two strands – sorrow and joy – that characterize life in Israel. But when Israelis do celebrate, they know how to do it on a grand scale, although this year will be different. The streets belong to the people – music platforms are erected at several locations in every city and village, and music fills the air.
Strangers used to join hands and dance in the streets. Songs from early statehood alternated with modern pop and rock. Youth movements used to start the celebrations, marching into the city and being applauded all along the route. Later, it was the adults’ turn to dance, eat popcorn, hot corn on the cob, pizza and falafel bursting out of pita bread.
Tourists remember the silly plastic hammers that people bopped you on the head with, as for once they indulged in sheer fun. It was noisy, exhausting and invigorating, lasting all night with street and park activities, private parties and songs around campfires.
When batteries were recharged after a few hours’ sleep, it was a day for family gatherings and picnics. Great quantities of food were unpacked from picnic hampers in the forest, fires were lit, and tantalizing aromas filled the air from meat grilling on hot coals.
The Israeli flag flew from every building, every car and every balcony, and I don’t believe that will change. “Chag Sameach” – Happy Holiday – is the universal greeting.
No matter where Israelis who have left have settled – whatever peaceful climes or greener pastures they may have found – I am sure that on Independence Day they wish they were here, with a deep nostalgia that no material gains can assuage.
Israel is beautiful. It is steeped in history. Its hills embrace you, its spirit stirs you. It can move you to tears and it can lift you in joy.
Two strands, woven together, joy and sorrow, that entwine your heart and bind you to your homeland.
The writer is the author of 14 books. [email protected]