Tuesday, May 6, 2003
Dear family and friends,
Springtime in Israel feels as though the very land itself has put
on its holiday best in honour of the festive season. The summer
dryness has yet to brown the lush green fields of winter, the flowers
are bright and blooming and the fruit trees which will be ready to
harvest in late summer or autumn are now covered in blossoms or infant
Amidst the vibrant rainbow of wildflowers, the bright red poppies
stand out in particular. Close up, the flower looks fragile, its
tissuey petals like the flimsiest silk. Viewed from a distance they
make the strongest statement of any of this season's blooms, standing
out from afar, a ruddy stain in the midst of the greens, yellows and
For all their dazzling loveliness, though, these flowers evoke
great tragedy. Ever since reading the British war poets, I can't look
at poppies without thinking of Flanders fields. On Britain's
Remembrance Sunday, in November, the flowers are everywhere, on lapels
and wreaths, bright dots of colour under the threatening, wintry
skies. Paper flowers, that is, for November is not exactly flower
season in northern Europe.
Here in Israel the poppy's red expanses paint the landscape on our
Memorial Day. Israel was lynched at the very time of her birth in the
spring of 1948. The vibrant meadows of poppies were soaked in the
blood of the infant state's defenders and the attacking soldiers of
the seven neighbouring Arab states.
Israeli poet Natan Yonatan, perhaps aware of the First World War
symbolism, saw in the fields of wild poppies the bloodied fields of
1948 and successive wars:
"Have you ever seen such redness
That cries out far and
It was once a field of blood
And is now a field of
Israel's remembrance day is symbolised by another seasonal flower,
red everlasting. Unlike the bold poppies, this flower is far more
modest and far less beautiful, a wiry, fuzzy-stemmed plant tipped with
tiny red florets, like drops of blood.
It doesn't form colourful carpets. Walking through the countryside
you could easily miss it hiding amongst the season's host of wild
grains and thistles. Yet here and there by a path or roadside you
might suddenly notice a flash of red swaying in the breeze, and
stooping you'll see the humble red everlasting with its wound like
But I said that the landscape wears its festive best for the
spring, not its grimmest, and indeed it does.
The bright pink of our native hollyhocks are the boldest flower of
the season. For me they symbolise the springtime holidays, greeting
the droves of Israelis on the move, lining the roadsides or standing
out in dense meadows of wild grasses, with their columns of huge
blooms on shoulder-high stems.
Their lowly ground crawling cousins, the stemless hollyhock, skulk
on the grass verges or at the edges of fields. Wild snapdragons in
garish fuchsia line cliffsides and roadside wasteland, their joyous
colouring shouting that the festivals are upon us once more.
Passover day trips and Independence Day picnics are spent in
glorious meadows of cheery sunny field chrysanthemums, huge clusters
of them smiling up at vacationing Israelis from every fallow field or
wild hillside. On country walks you wade through seas of wild barley,
wheat and oats, delicate yellow or pink wild mustard and forests of
yellow wild fennel, and wild carrot with its umbrellas of little white
flowers. Even the fiercesome thistles are decked out in their holiday
best, from magenta to bluish purple.
It's as if the land is celebrating with us.
The other spring flowers with their brighter shades embrace the
deep reds of the poppies, softening their bloody hues with an array of
colours from purest white to deep purple.
Just as Independence Day is always tinged by the sadness of
Memorial Day which precedes it, so the glory of the spring flowers is
somehow tempered by the tragic associations of the poppy and the red
everlasting. Yet, just as the palette of other flowers incorporates
the poppies into a vibrant multicoloured display of joy, so
Independence Day gently hugs, then overcomes, the mourning of Memorial
Day, leaving it just one part of the diverse whole of Israel's
And the land itself both mourns with us and celebrates with us.