April 15, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Monday, April 15, 2002
Memorial Day Eve

Dear family and friends,

Even in these difficult times you can feel that Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day, is upon us once more. Not that in some ways this whole year hasn't felt like one long memorial day, but the atmosphere is still different.

As every year the streets are decked out with Israeli flags and festive bunting, and those same public buildings, and many private ones too, are also marked with a symbolic paper flame or memorial candle.

If on a normal year though the advertising billboards are covered with festive ads from various Israeli companies wishing us a happy holiday, this year the tone has been more inspirational than festive. While some companies have chosen the traditional "happy holidays" greeting, many others have put up posters with more patriotic messages. The mood is hopeful, cautious optimism, the quintessential Israeli philosophy of "yehiye tov" (things will get better).

Everywhere you go it seems there is the Cellcom billboard with the message: "Together all the way". Only when you get up close do you realise that this is an ad by a mobile phone company and not some political party or Zionist organisation's banner. The Israeli rail company and the Egged bus company have opted for a similar message: "Together we continue to move onward".

Another theme is support for Israel's security forces in these difficult times. A huge poster in Tel Aviv bears the legend "To Israel's security forces, rescue services and support services - our hearts say thank you." The banner is signed with a huge Microsoft Israel logo. Similar posters are sponsored by other companies.

As darkness fell Monday night the radio went over to Memorial Day mode. Nearly 24 hours of melancholy songs, of which Israel produces a great many.

There is almost a set liturgy of songs for the day. Israeli war songs are for the most part sombre or sentimental, songs of loss, of the price of heroism. Titles such as "The Last Battle", "The Last War" are common, the hope that this will truly be the last time we have to fight. Other songs bear the names of fallen soldiers: Yudke, Giora, Yehuda, Dudu. The horror and pain of war are far more dominant themes than glory.

At exactly 8pm on Memorial Day evening the memorial sirens began to wail. At the first sound of the mournful howl the entire country stood still. I snapped to attention, dropping the laundry basket I was holding. My neighbour across the yard froze in the action of hanging her washing.

Across Israel people stopped whatever they were doing and stood silently, in solemn remembrance of the fallen. Well over 200 more since last Memorial Day.

Amazing how long a minute can seem.

This morning, as every Memorial Day, I was at the Kfar Sava military cemetery at the graveside of a classmate killed five years ago during the Lebanon War. As the morning memorial siren blared all was still and silent. Then in the distance we heard the rising wail of an ambulance siren followed by the flashing lights of another emergency vehicle whizzing past.

Even when the memorial siren ended, the hysterical clanging of ambulance and police sirens remained. Through the mourning prayers people looked anxiously at one another, fearing that there had been an attack. I noticed a few people nervously checking the news on their cellphones. Thank God it was OK, apparently a false alarm.

It was as usual a brief ceremony, a ritual of remembrance combining Jewish tradition and Western military custom. The Kaddish memorial prayer alongside the European Last Post bugle call. Kel Maleh Rahamim followed by the laying of wreaths and a riflefire honour salute.

Many people come more to meet than for the ceremony itself. By my classmate's grave the regular group of friends, army buddies and family gathered to exchange memories and stories.All around we are growing up, marrying, starting families, taking on mortgages, building careers and finding our first grey hairs. More than anything these mundane facts of life bring home the reality that our friend will remain twenty-two forever.

Even five years later it is still hard to grasp that he is really gone. Sometimes I he is in my dreams, I'm a guest at his wedding or we meet at a school reunion, or other similar scenarios. I wake up, momentarily happy, and then I realise that it was a dream, and the pain of the loss hits me again, almost as strong as on that terrible night itself.

The cemetery seemed even more crowded than usual, though I'm not sure if it was. As we stood waiting to leave a family brushed by me in the crowd. The son, a boy of about 13, wore the ripped shirt of a fresh mourner, as did a teenage girl, presumably his sister, and a couple of adults. Their eyes were glazed over, seeing but not seeing, the fresh hurt clearly apparent. So many new families added to the list of the bereaved.


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.