In My Own Write: Two minutes of silence

Forgive the question, but what did you think about when the siren sounded?

holocaust siren 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
holocaust siren 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
If I could, I would ask my fellow Israeli Jews: What images came into your mind when the memorial siren sounded on Holocaust Remembrance Day? And what will you think about during those two drawn-out minutes next Tuesday, when we commemorate the thousands who have fallen in Israel's wars, or were felled in terror attacks? I'm guessing that the answers wouldn't come easy. And that when they did, they would come in fits and starts, interspersed with long, intense silences. Many people, I'm thinking, wouldn't answer at all. Perhaps they would resent the question. And they should; because it is a highly intrusive, perhaps unbearably intimate one. Because what I would really be asking is: When you, personally, are put on the spot, wherever those 120 wailing seconds catch you - in the office, downtown, or more privately at home - how do you confront the outrageous price of continued Jewish existence? How are you, individually, living and dealing with a heritage at once so awesome and so terrible? I suspect that the minds of many standing respectfully at attention dart desperately from thought to thought, searching for a defining image that will reflect, however dimly and for that sliver of arrested time at least, the scale and substance of what we are commemorating. Others' minds, I'd bet, simply freeze, like when a computer does. The allotted task has proven simply too colossal for the system to carry it out. Those brave enough to answer my question would be worth listening carefully to, whether they spoke coherently or stuttered and stumbled, because they would be offering an important glimpse into the complex Jewish psyche. But those who didn't reply would command no less respect. Because answers needn't always come in spoken form, and deeds really do speak louder than words. The fact that those people were physically here, leading their lives in Israel's cities, towns and villages - and not in London, Washington, Toronto or Johannesburg - would, in itself, be a compelling response. I SUPPOSE that, having asked the question, it would be a cop-out to avoid answering it personally. What I'll think about next week when the siren sounds on Remembrance Day for Israel's Fallen, I don't yet know. Having had - amazingly, perhaps, after 36 years in this country, and with great good fortune - no close personal contact either with any soldier killed in Israel's wars or anyone murdered in a terror attack, I might locate a photo or two of specific individuals whose lives were cut off. For the duration of the siren, I would try and remember those innocent faces, most of them achingly young, who died defending our country - and internalize the knowledge that, beyond themselves, they symbolize many thousands similarly gone. Perhaps I will remember Maj. Ro'i Klein, deputy commander of Golani's Battalion 51 during the Second Lebanon War, who on July 26, 2006, in Bint Jbail, jumped on a grenade to save his soldiers. Those nearby say he saw the grenade, said the opening lines of the Shema prayer, "and then dove onto it." Every recollection of that fallen soldier, and others like him, will be mixed with a swell of pride at the sheer human quality of such an individual; although again, immediately, inevitably - and so Jewishly - must come a renewed wave of sadness at the enormity of the loss. DURING those two minutes next week, if I have the courage, I will picture a car driven by Tali Hatuel, 34, eight months pregnant, making her way to Ashkelon where she was planning to join her husband at a protest against the disengagement plan. I will imagine the car brought to a stop on the Kissufim Road. I will force my mind's eye to see, as clearly as it can, Tali's four small daughters - Hila, 11, Hadar, nine, Roni, seven, and Merav, two - sitting in the back seat, chattering and giggling as little girls do; then watch them shot dead, point-blank, one at a time, by Palestinian terrorists. It might be too much to achieve, but I would try to feel something of the horror. Mental voyeurism? I don't think so. It would be more like an effort to emerge from the confines of my own self-centeredness so I could, just possibly, experience the merest shadow of such pain. And, of course, I would have to remind myself, again, that excruciating as this episode was, it is one of thousands of terror attacks going back through all the years of Israel's existence, and before, that have succeeded in killing Jews because they are Jews. IN the matter of the Shoah, I can claim a too-near connection, having lost two grandfathers, as well as aunts and uncles and cousins, and grown up with the legacy of a mother and grandmother deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. One might think, therefore, that I could have filled the two minutes of this week's siren on Holocaust Remembrance Day with some significance; and I could. But not nearly enough. Because, as I explained in this newspaper on May 4, 2005, in "Second generation revisited": "I stand as near to the gates of Auschwitz and Belsen as anyone who was not actually there - and that is still a million miles away." What it means, in essence, is that even if I try to imagine some of what my mother saw in Auschwitz - like the SS using a baby as a football - in the end, I'm like most people of my generation and younger who stood mute during Tuesday's siren: ready and willing, earnest and sincere, but unable to encompass something that ultimately defies conceptualization. "The most emotionally intense experiences are national ones," David Brooks wrote of Israel last week in a New York Times column entitled "A Loud and Promised Land." Perhaps. And the sight - just the idea - of people throughout the land observing, together, two minutes of silent respect; even cars and buses halted while their drivers stand beside them, heads bowed, is a poignant expression of national unity and recognition of a common history and fate. For that alone it's valuable, however one fills those moments. It also helps those of us who made aliya from the relatively affluent West reaffirm why we did so. SINCE it's soul-baring time, I'll share a life-changing moment that occurred back in the '70s, when I was a student at Manchester University in the UK. The Jewish Society was holding an event which featured a question-and-answer session with a panel that deserves mention if only because you wouldn't likely see it today: an Orthodox, a Conservative, a Reform and a Liberal rabbi all sitting together on the same platform, ready to answer students' queries. I have to confess that I don't remember the actual question; but the answer - given by the Liberal rabbi - lodged itself in my brain. "The historians of the future," the rabbi said, "will find it hard to understand why, after millennia of Jewish crying and lamenting and yearning for Jerusalem - when it finally became possible, so few Jews actually went there." That statement was what ultimately brought me here to participate in the great Jewish adventure of our time. On Independence Day, which begins next week as Remembrance Day ends, that rabbi's probing words might constitute food for thought among Jews in the Diaspora. For those of us who did make it here, they are something of a vindication.