My word: Independent spirits

The list of fallen soldiers and the victims of terror sadly has grown longer in the passing decades.

independence day air show_521 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
independence day air show_521
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
I have issues to deal with – not just the tight print schedules that are a natural part of the spring routine for the editor of a weekly Israeli publication; I have emotional issues. The reason is the only-in-Israel combination that takes us from Passover to Holocaust Day and then, overnight, from Remembrance Day to Independence Day.
This week, I realized with a jolt that I can recall in great detail my first Independence Day in Israel, in 1980, but nothing at all about that Remembrance Day.
My first Yom Ha’atzmaut was a learning experience in many ways. I was part of a Nahal garin (army group) on a southern kibbutz, a million miles away from London, the city I had left when I made aliya in July 1979.
The kibbutz had some kind of entertainment program planned, but in an act expressing our own independence I was part of a small group of friends who sneaked away. This very much went against the collective spirit of both the kibbutz and the garin, but it suited me. I was flattered that anybody – even other “outsiders” – had thought to invite “the English girl” along.
When they told me they wanted to go to Sderot to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut and meet up with friends, I had no idea what would be involved.
Those were different days in Israel. How different, I’d only learn to appreciate later on.
For a start, even if we had asked permission, it is very unlikely a car or someone with a driver’s license could have been found to take us to the town. There were very few private vehicles at the time.
And since none of the friends they wanted to see had phones at home, we just had to assume that somehow everybody would meet up.
As I recall, we boldly set out on foot, safe in the knowledge that we’d pick up a “tremp” – hitch a ride – at some point. In my memory, there was a prevailing smell of orange blossom and melons.
Hitchhiking in those days was common, frequently the only form of transport, in fact. Our mistake was to assume that perfect strangers – or at least those good-hearted enough to offer us a lift – would be traveling on the road on the evening of Independence Day.
It took us much longer than we had reckoned to reach Sderot, which at the time symbolized the Negev development towns.
In the 1980s, it was the North that was under missile attack from Lebanon. Israel was still in control of Gaza and the area was considered safe.
By the time we reached the town center, we had missed any artistic performances or sing-alongs that had been arranged – still a staple of Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations across the country – and the only entertainment was provided by a few youths who were wandering around armed with blue-and- white plastic inflatable hammers.
These, I discovered, were used to playfully “bop” other revelers on the head. I seemed to be farther away from England than ever.
While I don’t miss being tapped on the head – however playfully – I miss the innocence of those days when, somehow, being hit like that didn’t seem to spark fights or carry the risk of a lawsuit.
I think there had been a firework display – another lasting tradition – but we apparently had missed that, too.
The only good thing about being in a small town after all that passed for action had ended was that it made it easy to find my girlfriends’ schoolmates. Everybody was at home. Somebody’s home.
We seemed to gather people into our merry band at a terrific pace – some were friends, some were cousins, and some were neighbors who had covered a far shorter distance than I had, both physically and psychologically.
Almost all the families had previously gathered at some point to watch the traditional parades and programs on Israel Television in the days when Channel 1 was the one and only station, providing what has been called “the communal campfire” effect.
Some of the details get hazy here, but I remember a bunch of about 10 of us ending up in the garden of the person with the largest home (and a heart to match). We were eating watermelon, cracking sunflower seeds and drinking homemade lemonade.
I was struck by the way somebody’s mother welcomed this large group, including several unfamiliar faces, that arrived unannounced late at night and quickly produced food and sustenance and an offer for us to sleep over.
It was then I learned that there was more to “hospitality” than issuing an invitation, weeks in advance, to come over for a drink.
This was territory familiar to the patriarch Abraham, not common in the London I had left.
However, since we had skipped the kibbutz without telling anyone, we had to return that night. After hitching a short ride or two and walking what seemed a great distance, we finally arrived back – far more people than we had started out.
The next day we got up late – a luxury on a kibbutz – and took part in a communal picnic.
WITH SO many memories of that first Independence Day, I find it particularly perturbing that I can recall nothing at all of Remembrance Day – not even standing still for the siren, although I’m sure I did.
Perhaps it was because when life temporarily stops on a kibbutz it lacks the shock effect of when it halts, suspended for the duration of the siren, in a big city – or even a small town like Sderot.
Most likely, however, it was because I didn’t yet have a face to keep in mind as I stood still. Apart from Yoni Netanyahu, killed during the Entebbe rescue operation, I would have found it hard to name to any Israeli soldier who died in action. There are cases when ignorance is bliss.
The first military funeral I attended was that year – the father of one of my garin, killed in a road accident while returning from reserve duty.
I was in London, after military service, when the First Lebanon War broke out in June 1982. And unlike the events of that first Remembrance Day, I recall, with that slow-motion effect that accompanies the shock of bereavement, precisely how I opened a letter from one of the friends who had given me my first Yom Ha’atzmaut experience. In it, taking obvious care over her words, she wrote of the death of someone we had both been close to.
Brutally, before she posted the letter, she had hastily added a postscript with the name of another fallen kibbutznik.
The list of fallen soldiers and the victims of terror sadly has grown longer in the passing decades. And I always spare a thought, too, for those whose families have to cope with something worse than death, not knowing the fates of their loved ones, missing in action.
Every year, there are those who suggest that the country separate Remembrance Day from Independence Day – the juxtaposition is too jarring for some to handle. But for me, 33 years after my initiation into Israeli life, nothing could be more natural.
Praying the list grows no more, I recall with pain those who paid the ultimate price; none of them, I’m sure, would be sorry to know that this year, the 65th Independence Day – despite all the changes – families and friends will still gather to eat, drink and celebrate. I rather fancy that they’re gathered here with us – the spirits of Independence Day.
The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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