Israel’s memorial day, Yom HaZikaron, is celebrated on Tuesday, April 25, 2023. It is a national holiday that commemorates “fallen soldiers” – those that have given their lives for the county.
And then within forty-eight hours, we celebrate Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel Independence Day, which is today. A week ago, we honored those lost in the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah.
Taken together, these holidays are known as Israel’s Secular High Holy Days.
This year, in particular, it might be challenging for us to celebrate along with Israel. The country is in the midst of tremendous political tension and humanitarian issues.
However – this thing I know for sure – it is imperative for us to stay engaged with Israel. When you are in a relationship, even with a country, you stay connected through the good times and the bad. It has become clear that Israel needs us Jews in the diaspora. We are connected and we are needed.
During my year living in Israel for the first year of rabbinic school (2004-2005), we experienced what has come to be known as the “secular High Holy Days”: a series of three holidays/commemorations that follow Passover: Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah), The Day of Fallen Soldiers/Memorial Day (Yom HaZikaron) and Israel Independence Day (Yom Ha’Atzmaut.) Click here to read my post on Yom HaShoah: In Memory of Those Who Dreamed of Kugel.
The lived experience of these holidays had a profound impact on me. It is something that could only be felt and is not easy to describe. The entire country goes on a journey from grief, to grief to celebration. First, we experience the personal and national grief of the Holocaust. Then, the honoring of the sacrifice of soldiers. Then, the country erupts into a wild celebration of the miracle to live in our land.
From my Year-In-Israel blog
There are four holidays right in a row at this time of year: Passover, followed 7 days later by Yom Hashoah, followed 7 days later by Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), and the very next day: Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day).
In the early days of the founding of Israel, it was decided to use the calendar as a way to establish meaning for the new country. Of course, there were many precedents for this. For example, in the Jewish calendar developed long ago, we mark the time from Pesach, when we left Egypt from slavery to freedom, to Shavuot where we received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. We count the 49 days in between these two dates – called Counting the Omer.
Likewise, the founders of the State of Israel wanted to make a connection from Pesach to Independence Day with a series of holidays that would be forever commemorated. Knesset members in the 1950’s wanted to link Pesach, with the remembrance of the Holocaust, and then, a day that remembers all those who have died in Israel’s wars (called Yom HaZikaron (Day of Fallen Soldiers), and concluding with the day of Independence, Yom HaAtzmaut.
David Ben Gurion and the other founders of the state of Israel had an additional intention in the creation of these days.
They were trying to unite a very diverse society whose members came from all over the world, spoke different languages, and often had different customs.
The founders knew that the people needed a single focus and it was of the utmost importance to form a unified identity. One of the ways they accomplished this was through the creation of special holidays.
David Ben-Gurion was deeply concerned that the new society could splinter, because of the people’s many differences, but he also did not want these holidays to be linked with religion.
Most of the early Zionists were nationalistic, not religious.
It’s the rhythm of this period of time, as well as the content, which I found so fascinating.
The Rhythm Of These Holidays
First, there is Passover.
Seven days later, comes Yom HaShoah – and THEN, exactly 7 days later, we celebrate Israel’s Memorial Day (Yom HaZikaron.)
It was determined that the 7 days between Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron was a collective “sitting shiva” for all those who died.
And in fact, that is exactly what it felt like.
For these 7 days of mourning, the newspapers, television, and magazines are filled with stories of the Holocaust, survivors’ stories, research being done, etc.
The atmosphere is thick with memory, and a silence falls over everyone’s everyday activities.
The official name for Holocaust Remembrance Day is “Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah“–literally the “Day of (Remembrance of) the Holocaust and the Heroism.”
My professors explained that in 1951, when this holiday was first initiated, the focus was on the people who were “Resisters.”
This is fascinating, for several reasons.
The Early Zionists
First, the early Zionists, who were working for an independent Jewish state, even before Nazi Germany, had been telling the Jewish people, loud and clear, that they would never be “safe” unless they were in their own country. They saw the creation of the state of Israel as the only sure-fire way to protect against pogroms and anti-Semitism.
The early Zionists saw themselves as “pioneers” – you may have seen the posters of them depicted as young, strong, working the fields, transforming the desert into a garden.
The contrasting image of Jews in Eastern Europe going like “sheep to the slaughter” was anathema to the vision of the “New Jew”. The “New Jew” would fight back, stand up, and resist.
Consciously and probably unconsciously, the Zionists did not want to identify with the survivors, the victims.
They “raised up” the Jews who led the resistance movements, the Jews who fought in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and the Jews who fought the Germans from the Allied countries. These people were the “heroes and heroines.”
It was only later that Israeli society began to feel a greater collective compassion for the victims and survivors of the Holocaust.
In fact, the turning point was the 6-day war of 1967. In the days leading up to that war, people were already digging graves for the slaughter they were sure would happen.
It was after the victory of that war that the Israeli psyche was able to let in the suffering of the survivors, and the victims of the Nazi death camps.
Probably – the fact that Israel, this tiny nation the size of New Jersey, had all the huge Arab nations surrounding it, assured of its destruction, that allowed in the thought that perhaps simple determination to win against adversaries might not be enough.
At this point, our professors told us, that Israeli society turned a corner, and began to listen to the stories of survivors.
The Survivors of the Holocaust
There are many survivors, just like in Skokie, where I grew up, who did not tell their children about the horrors they endured.
The survivors who arrived in Israel set themselves about the task of putting their painful past behind them, learning Hebrew, and building a new life. Nobody wanted to talk, and actually, not many people wanted to listen.
In Israel now, there are ceremonies, beginning in the evening, all over for Yom Hashoah. The ceremonies in Tel Aviv and at Yad Vashem are nationally broadcast on television on all the channels.
In the ceremonies, survivors, often accompanied by their grandchildren, and some in uniform, as the grandchildren are now the age of serving in the Israeli army, light candles. There is music, a few speeches, and the reciting of the Kaddish, and Al Male Rachamim, a prayer for the dead.
The next day, is a regular work and school day. At my seminary, Hebrew Union College, we had a ceremony that the American students conducted with the Israeli rabbinic students.
At the end of the ceremony, people in our own HUC community were invited up to recite the names of people in their family who perished in the Holocaust.
One Israeli student read a list that seemed to go on forever.
Our dean, Rabbi Michael Marmur, told the story of 2 little girls who hid in a cemetery, which was thought to be “safe” place. A 7-year-old girl took care of the 4-year-old. They had only a bit of food. In a few days, when it was deemed safe, the families came to get the girls. The 7-year-old was Rabbi Marmur’s mother. She immigrated to Britain. The 4-year-old is now a dentist in Tel Aviv.
What really affected me was the awareness of how much was lost – whole worlds. Michael Marmur is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met, and a true gift to the Jewish people. He has never failed to move me whenever he speaks. If his mother had not survived, the world would have never had a Michael Marmur.
What about all the brilliance, intellectual and compassion, that was never to be because of the Shoah? It boggles my mind.
Seven days after Yom HaShoah, Israel commemorates all those who have died in wars protecting the country. The very next day, the country erupts in celebration of the founding of the state of Israel.
I grew up in Skokie, Illinois, with a large concentration of Holocaust survivors. Our public schools were closed for the major Jewish holidays. Yet, I never in my life experienced what I did in Israel. The entire country mourns and then celebrates together.
What had the greatest impact on my consciousness was the sirens that go off, halting the whole country on both Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron.
At 11 am on Yom HaShoah, a siren goes off that is heard all over the entire country for 2 minutes. Everything stops. Cabs and buses pull off the side of the road and drivers get out of their cars and stand at attention in silence. Everything and everyone stops. And remembers.
PS I cannot write about Israel without mentioning my deep yearning for peace in the land, and among Israel’s neighbors. I believe in an Israel that is committed to Jewish values of justice, as well as security. The single most thing I learned from our year in Israel was how complicated the entire matzav (Hebrew for “situation”) is.
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