Memorial Day here and there

Keep Dreaming: In Israel, a Memorial Day picnic would be as incongruous as a 9/11 barbecue. Why are things so different across the ocean?

Macy's Memorial Day sale 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Macy's Memorial Day sale 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Thursday, May 26, America. Just ended a business call with an attempt to set a date for our next meeting. Someone suggested Monday. “Can’t do that,” came the response. “Memorial Day. We’ll be out celebrating.” Memorial Day? Celebrating?
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Since arriving in the US, I’d been bombarded by an endless array of ads promoting Memorial Day getaways, Memorial Day parties, and, most of all, Memorial Day sales. The newspaper even carried a comprehensive guide to leisure time activities for the upcoming holiday. Conspicuously absent have been notices of Memorial Day ceremonies. I’m sure they’re being planned, but I’m rather doubtful they will be well attended. Based on my own irrefutable survey of friends and relatives, my guess is that the overwhelming majority of Americans – well, at least New Yorkers – wouldn’t be able to tell you where the neighborhood commemoration is taking place, or if there is even going to be one. But you can bet your bottom dollar (and advertising companies did just that) that that same majority is looking forward to the long four-day weekend in the offing.
REWIND TO May 8. Maccabi Tel Aviv faces off against Panathinaikos in the final game of the Euroleague basketball championship in Barcelona, having earned its chance at the title after a long, hard stretch. We (okay, I admit I had very little to do with the team having gotten as far as it did, but I identify) came tantalizingly close to claiming the trophy but were ultimately defeated. That was unfortunate, but unfortunately we had far more unfortunate things to occupy us that evening, being that the contest ended just as our own Memorial Day was about to begin. Which brings me to three things I loved about the game, despite the outcome.
First, there was the compliance with our insistence that it begin an hour earlier than originally scheduled so that our squad wouldn’t have to play after the commencement of ceremonies back home for those who have been sacrificed on the altar of our dreams. This, coupled with the announcement that if the match should nevertheless run late due to overtime, at 8 p.m. sharp, Israel time, we were outtathere. As seriously as we take our basketball, there are other things we take more seriously.
Just a few minutes after the defeat, as dejected as the team members must have felt, they turned on their cell phones and called home so as to be able to actually hear the siren sound for our fallen, a wailing heard throughout the country that literally brings the nation to a standstill. They had a far more profound loss to bear than an eight-point spread to their disadvantage, and they needed to be part of the experience in a visceral way. Staring at the hands on a foreign clock in some far-away land just wasn’t going to do the trick. A contemporary translation of Yehuda Halevi’s paean to Zion: “I may be in the West, but my heart is in the East.”
Second was the fact that we were there at all, center stage, not just watching from the sidelines as others played a game that had nothing to do with us. Against all odds, here we were competing with the best of them. And here was where we were going to stay. A battle lost, but another season to come, and when it opens, we’ll be there, never again to leave the court. Campaigns of boycott, divestment and sanctions be what they may, Maccabi Tel Aviv is legit, as is the nation whose flag it proudly waves. Zionism: making history, not at its mercy.
Third, the confluence of the game ending and our grieving beginning was a stark reminder of the remarkable transformation our people has undergone over the past century – on the playing field as well as on the battlefield. Our much touted hi-tech conquest of Wall Street is not the only narrative of our national revival. It’s also been a tale of the reclamation of body, along with soil and soul. Who could have imagined this sports finale 63 years ago, when Holocaust survivors were taken off the boats at the shores of the Promised Land, handed a rifle they didn’t know how to use, and sent to Latrun to fight for Jerusalem? Who could have imagined it more than a century ago, in the wake of the Kishinev pogroms when our forebears, defenseless and powerless, were butchered and raped?
AND YET, from the very beginning of our national revival there were those who did. Already in 1898, Max Nordau, then deputy chairman of the World Zionist Organization, issued an impassioned plea for the physical regeneration of the Jewish people as a vital element of the Zionist undertaking. He called for a new “muscular Judaism,” and urged the establishment of Jewish sports clubs, which would eventually join together to form the Maccabi World Union, inspired by Herzl’s defiant declaration that a new generation of Maccabees would rise again. Which, in a roundabout way, brings me back to the distinction between Memorial Day in Israel and the United States.
The commercialization and frivolity that dominates the occasion in America is all but inconceivable over here, when restaurants, movie theaters and places of entertainment are all closed and television and radio broadcasts are restricted to thematically related programming, somber and introspective. For us, a Memorial Day picnic would be as incongruous as a 9/11 barbecue and as offensive as a Holocaust dance. Why are things so different across the ocean?
It is not a matter of immediacy. America’s wars are not in the distant past. Its soldiers are still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the trauma of Vietnam is still very real for an entire generation that chooses to spend the day at the beach.
Neither is it a matter of numbers. War dead in the US amount to some 0.43 percent of the country’s current population. Our casualties equal only 0.37% of our citizenry. Indeed, a far larger proportion of our fallen have living relatives, but I don’t believe the answer can be found in the manipulation of statistics.
No, we have to delve deeper, into the collective memory of our people – and the rituals we have devised that create an awareness of peoplehood that transcends time and place. Each of us took part in the Exodus from Egypt, stood at Mount Sinai, experienced the destruction of the Temple and was exiled from Jerusalem. And when we played that final Euroleague game, it was once again the Maccabees taking on the Greeks – in a country we remember for the Inquisition and from which we were expelled in the same year that Columbus discovered America. When centuries later, the Mayflower set sail for its shores, how many of today’s Americans feel that they were on board?
And that is the difference. With all that divides us in this tiny country of ours, with all that is fractious, we share a historical consciousness that we have carefully cultivated through centuries of dispersion. In Israel, Memorial Day is communal. In America, it is personal. There, if you are not mourning family or friend, you are more than likely to set out and shop. Here, all of the same tribe, we feel an inner compulsion to remember and stop.
Some things you can only discover at Macy’s.
The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency executive. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.