Rattling The Cage: To cry on cue

The way the Israeli mood purportedly changes on a dime from somberness to exultation just underscores how each of these moods is artificially induced.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
A few months after I moved to Israel, I felt it a matter of national duty to watch the televised ceremonies for Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzma'ut. I also felt it a matter of national duty to try to get into the mood for each one. Likewise, I felt obliged to focus my mind on Holocaust victims, and a week later on Israeli soldiers killed in battle, during the sirens that sounded in their memories. I don't remember if I succeeded in concentrating on those images and being saddened by them, but I tried as hard as I could. Finally I went to the Yom Ha'atzma'ut parade in Tel Aviv - partly out of natural curiosity, it being my first one, but also out of a feeling of national duty. And at some point during the parade I realized that the collective experience of the Israeli national holidays, or at least what's said to be the collective experience, was not for me. I don't like noisy, jostling crowds, I don't like flag-waving, I don't like ceremonies, I don't like ceremoniousness, I don't like watching TV announcers and politicians putting on sad faces or happy faces, and above all I don't like being told how I'm supposed to feel. There are moments when I feel pride in Israel or love for Israel. There are moments when I have an image in my mind of a victim of the Holocaust or a soldier who was killed, and it has an emotional effect on me. But I cannot be affected that way on cue. To this day I try to evoke those images when the siren sounds, because I feel a little guilty standing there with my head bowed and my mind blank. I feel a little guilty at not being able to feel sad at that moment for the people who lost their lives. But in calmer moments, when the siren isn't sounding and everyone in the country isn't standing still, I know it's a futile effort, at least for me - and, I imagine, not just for me - and there's nothing to feel guilty about because I can't call up the right thoughts and feel the right emotions at the right time. AS FOR the ceremonies, I try not to watch them anymore. I know those announcers and politicians are putting on a pained expression and speaking in a solemn tone for the occasion, that they are pretending to feel something they don't feel, because they have to. They are practiced at it, like funeral directors. I don't know how many people realize this. I understand that the announcers and politicians can't just rattle off their words on Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron in whatever mood they happen to really be in, they have to work up the proper demeanor. or you couldn't have these ceremonies at all. But for the sake of the truth, I think people ought to realize that this is a kind of show they're watching - a show of grief put on for the most honorable intentions, but a show nonetheless. And since I see no purpose to suspend disbelief, I don't watch it. I know very well that there are people at these ceremonies who obviously aren't faking it - the families and close friends and comrades-in-arms of soldiers who were killed, especially those who were killed recently. I also know that Yom Hashoah can be very hard for Holocaust survivors. But I also know that with the passage of time, grief, even on days of remembrance, is something that comes and goes unexpectedly. It doesn't stay fixed on one's face or in one's voice, it doesn't arrive on schedule at sundown and leave on schedule the following sundown. Furthermore, it diminishes over time. Yet the announcers and anchormen and politicians and dignitaries try to appear to be bearing the same measure of grief year and year out. There's an air of unreality to the whole thing, and I don't care to watch it. FOR THIS reason, the perennial question of whether it's fitting for the country to start Yom Ha'atzma'ut immediately after the end of Yom Hazikaron has never interested me. The critics say there's too wrenching a shift in mood, while the supporters say this accurately reflects the extremes of joy and sadness, if not schizophrenia, of life in Israel. I say that the way the Israeli mood purportedly changes on a dime from somberness to exultation just underscores how each of these moods is artificially induced, and that Israelis in general really aren't as somber as they're said to be on Yom Hazikaron, nor as exulted as they're said to be on Yom Ha'atzma'ut. As for my own mood on Yom Ha'atzma'ut, I'm still uninspired by flags, but my wife and kids like to hang them out, and that's fine with me. I'm not against flags. And I love barbecues. I like fireworks. There are usually great TV reruns on Yom Ha'atzma'ut, too. It's a nice holiday. But when it comes to being out in the parks with Am Yisrael - even if it didn't mean also having to be out in the traffic with Am Yisrael - forget it. For me, Yom Ha'atzma'ut is a nice day off on the balcony with family, friends, alcohol and meat. If I'm smiling, it's not out of national pride. BUT ON the subject of Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron, with all my objections to the way the media, the politicians and the celebrities just conscript everyone into being sad in unison, I think it speaks well of Israel that we take these memorials seriously, that we genuinely try to make a gesture to the memories of the Holocaust victims and the soldiers who were killed. It's true I think we're trying too hard to manufacture mass emotion, and sometimes all this strain produces embarrassing results - like the Yom Hazikaron front-page headline in Yediot Aharonot, "Touching the memory," which recalled the title of a once-popular Israeli soap opera, "Touching the Joy." But I would always want this country to set aside time to remember the victims of the Holocaust and of Israel's wars - both for the sake of the victims' families, and for the sake of everyone else. When you look at the way America, for instance, completely blows off the meaning of Memorial Day, with department stores drawing huge crowds with their traditional Memorial Day sales, and the parks overflowing with picnickers, I think any Israeli has to be appalled. The Americans behave this way on Memorial Day even now, when their soldiers are dying in Iraq. The only Americans who pay their respects on Memorial Day to the US soldiers who got killed in the wars are the families and close friends of those soldiers - a tiny percentage of the population - along with, of course, America's announcers and politicians, who, like Israel's announcers and politicians, know the drill. I DON'T want Israel to go America's way on this, I just want our solemn national holidays to be a little less solemn, a little more natural and unforced, without so much emotionalism, without the tear-jerking. I think there should be sirens sounding and everybody should stand still and silent; we owe that to the people who died and to their families. Those Israelis who feel anguish at that moment feel anguish. But it's not part of one's national duty to feel that way. If I'm not mistaken, Judaism places importance on the reciting of prayers, not on whether the person saying the prayer is caught up in the spirit of it or not. The same attitude that's taken to Jewish religious duty should be taken to Jewish national duty - what's important is that you do it. How you feel inside when you're doing your duty is a private affair, not the nation's.