When asked about my semester abroad, my academics are not the initial thing I rave about. Yes, I attend class on a beautiful campus (but of course, nothing as stunning as IU), and I am taking one class that I am over the top obsessed with, but sitting in class has not been the highlight of these past four months. This is simply because there is so much more to learn and see outside of the classroom. My thoughts on this could be a result of my passion for informal education, but over the past few weeks, I have been so lucky to be in Israel, specifically in Jerusalem, for Pesach, Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), and Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day for the Fallen Soldiers and Terrorist Victims) followed by the quick transition into Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day), which have granted me the opportunity to learn more about Jewish and Israeli culture from firsthand experiences that are outside of the classroom.
These series of days depict the culture of memory that is so unique to Israel. For so many years, I have read articles online and watched YouTube videos about the different ceremonies and events that take place on these important days, but being able to live them doesn’t even begin to compare to the virtual world I have been attempting to live vicariously through for as long as I can remember. I decided that I wanted to be in town to witness the siren for Yom HaShoah. Places of entertainment were not open, but aside from that everything was the same. Classes were in session, but I emailed my Hebrew teacher telling her I would not be in class. I thought it would be an experience to be in the Shuk for the one minute siren that sounded at 10:00AM, but Monday was delivery day, so after running into some friends, we all started to walk down to the intersection of Jaffa and King George (a normally busy intersection where one can see people walking, cars, and public transportation). Right before making it to the intersection the siren sounded. Everyone stopped- cars, public transportation, and most of the people on the streets all came to a complete standstill. The only sound I could hear for the first 45 seconds was the ticking of the street crossing. Just before the siren ended, some Arab women and children walked by all the still standing people, not even attempting to recognize or respect the rest of the people who were taking the one minute out of their day to remember and reflect on the events of the Holocaust.
After the siren, I returned to school to finish my day of class. Later in the afternoon, I came into town and visited my friend who works at a local electronic store. They were playing solemn music in the store, but the store- owner walked in and requested the music be turned off. The rest of the open locations also were playing very solemn music as none of the radio stations were allowed to broadcast their normal shows. People were also conducting different Yom HaShoah projects in town. I took part in writing a message that was placed in a time capsule about my thoughts on Yom HaShoah.
The emotions that I experienced that day were unlike anything I’ve ever felt during Yom HaShoah in the States. I was beyond disappointed to learn that my own Hillel did NOTHING for Yom HaShoah this year except publicize the day via social media. According to an article from the Indiana Daily Student, “Since the day fell towards the end of the year in America this year, we didn’t want to plan anything so close to the end and not have anyone show up,” Rabbi Sue Silberberg said. “It kind of says something worse if no one shows up than if we just don’t have anything.”
To me, Yom HaShoah was all about taking a few minutes out of the day to commemorate the victims, the survivors, as well as allow myself to reflect both internally as well as on the best ways to educate others and pass on the stories to future generations. In Israel, everyone carried on with work and their daily activities, but took the time to actually stop and to listen to the siren as well as possibly attend one of the many events that took place.
A week later was Yom Hazikaron. Not only does this day honor the soldiers who fought and continue to fight, but all victims of terrorist attacks. I attended the national ceremony at the Kotel. There were different memorial ceremonies all over Israel, but since who knows if I will ever be in Israel again for this day, I decided to go to the Kotel and risk not understanding any of the speeches since they would all be in Hebrew. My friends and I arrived at about 6:45pm and the ceremony did not start until 8pm. At first, I kind of felt like I was about to watch a Disney parade, but after seeing the snipers surrounding the Old City, all of the soldiers in uniform entering in mass quantities, followed by some really important looking people, the mood drastically changed. At 8pm the first siren sounded. As everyone came to a complete silence, I stood behind hundreds of soldiers, all of whom are fighting so that Israel continues to exist, and all of whom either know someone or know someone who knows someone that has died while fighting for the amazing and beautiful country I have been living in for the past few months.
Shortly after, the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, was escorted into the area. He gave a speech that I only understood bits and pieces of, but later read online. After a few more speakers, we collectively said the Kaddish followed by Hatikvah. As the ceremony was in front of the Kotel, the wall was blocked off and no one was praying. It was so interesting to see this place transformed into something totally different. Saying the Kaddish for the thousands of brave men and women who fought and continue to fight for the peace and security of Israel followed by Israel’s national anthem left me with indescribable feelings. As we left the ceremony, nothing was open in town. It really proves how important and serious of a day it was as well as the respect that (most of all) people have for the country and for the people who fight for its right to exist.
During the day on Yom Hazikaron the feelings and emotions were felt from Har Hertzl, where so many of the soldiers are buried all the way to the cafés and restaurants. Ceremonies were happening all over the country. Michael Oren, the former Israeli Ambassador to the US said the following, “In Israel, the day of remembrance for our fallen is a day of national mourning, condolence, and unity. In America, Memorial Day–which will be marked later this month–is a day largely of barbecues and shopping. Hundreds of thousands of young American men and women have died in battle, but their sacrifice is often forgotten. In Israel, the entire nation remembers the 23,169 of our sons and daughters who gave their lives. The difference between the two is a citizen’s army. Less than 0.5% of Americans serve in the military and a deep psychological and culture gap exists between the few who wear uniforms and the great majority who do not. In Israel, where the majority serves, soldiers are our children, our spouses, and our parents. A citizen’s army is a pillar of Israel’s democracy. On this day of collective loss, let us vow to preserve it.” I think that his words describe the difference in a very respectful yet truthful way.
Towards the end of the day my friends and I got ready to go see how the day of mourning would transition into a day celebrating Israel. The fast change from somber to celebration reminds us how Israel exists as the Jewish Homeland because of all the men and women that defended and continue to defend this precious land. As soon as sunset arrived, stands were opening selling Israel spirited items and all the streets were packed with people. I somehow managed to get a free falafel for dinner (wonderful story) and then we went to a family’s house for their Yom Haatzmaut BBQ. It was so fun to see how a local Jerusalem family with kids my age celebrates this incredible holiday. After we left, we walked the streets soaking in all the celebrations, music, and people. Left and right there were music stands and large groups of people. Everyone was celebrating and having a good time. I still have not processed everything I saw and there is no way to describe the feeling of nationalism that is shared between all these people.
It is not fair to compare these holidays to Memorial Day or 4th of July in the United States, but at the end of the day, the sense of community and pride for Israel is unlike anything I have ever seen before. As my semester slowly is coming to a close, it is more clear than ever that this is a one of a kind place and I could not be more grateful for having the opportunity to be here this semester. This week, I only have one day of class and then I’m off to Prague. Hope all is well with everyone! Until next time….xoxo