May 6, 2003 Update

Letters from Israel

Tuesday, May 6, 2003
Memorial Day

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 fruitlets.

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 pinkish hues.

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 wide?
It was once a field of blood
And is now a field of poppies."

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 flowers.

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 legacy.

And the land itself both mourns with us and celebrates with us.


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Copyright 2003 by Leiah Elbaum.