This past Monday morning, a few minutes before ten o’clock, I was chatting with a group of people while walking down King David Street in Jerusalem. At exactly 10:00 a.m. we gradually became aware of the mournful, insistent sound of a siren rising in the distance. Like the people around us, we stopped talking and stood in place. Traffic came to a halt. Drivers and passengers opened the doors of their cars and stood at attention behind the open doors. For two full minutes no one spoke or moved, until the siren dropped in pitch and faded away.
This happens every year on Yom Hazikaron laShoah v’laGvurah, what we call Holocaust Memorial Day. Its full Hebrew name means “Memorial Day for the Shoah and for Heroism,” recognizing the resistance to Nazi terror as well as the unimaginable losses that terror inflicted. What is remarkable for visitors, particularly those from independent-minded and ironically inclined America, is the near-unanimous participation in this ritual of silence and respect. It is unexpected precisely because of the lack of irony and detachment, and the intense feeling in this very public observance.
When Yom HaShoah begins at nightfall, all restaurants and places of entertainment must close. Cable television channels that carry comedy or sports programs are replaced by a fixed, somber memorial image. The overall effect is to create a private, solemn atmosphere more pervasive than on Kol Nidre night. During the following day, when most people go about their business as usual, the ritual attention at the sound of the siren is an intentional act to join in a public expression of loss and sorrow. It becomes more powerful because it is so widely shared.
America has a Memorial Day, of course, and originally it too was observed with a specific public ritual. It was then called Decoration Day, the occasion when the families of Civil War dead placed flowers on their graves. With the passage of time it became a generic day in honor of fallen soldiers. Now it’s the unofficial start of the summer season, a day for barbecues.
American culture has in many ways replaced the specific with the generic and substituted the metaphorical for the real. When the United States is at war, as it now is on two fronts, few Americans feel any difference from peacetime. War is an off-stage event, and daily death tolls from bombings are statistics, not a felt reality. The Holocaust, too, is for most Americans an abstraction: a metaphor for evil, a lesson to be learned. In Israel, where so many survivors found a home, it is a cold fact, an agonizing experience felt by people who live here amongst us.
Next Sunday night Israel’s other memorial day begins, the one that honors the soldiers who died in the many wars since 1948. It calls on no distant memory: practically every Jew in Israel knows a family that has been bereaved or has directly suffered the loss of a loved one through war. And the pain of those losses routinely is widely shared. When two soldiers were killed in Gaza three weeks ago, thousands attended their funerals.
In America, where no battles have been fought on its own soil within living memory, there’s a growing belief that evil is an obsolete concept and war is anachronistic. Israelis, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of viewing these concepts in philosophical terms. Military force is widely felt to be the nation’s bulwark against disaster. This gap in the two countries’ understanding of the abstraction and reality of war is widespread, yet little acknowledged. And it is a major reason for the widening chasm between Israelis and American Jews.
I have lived in Israel for only a year and a half, but I know parents whose children died defending this country. Next Monday morning, when the sirens wail again, I won’t be thinking about abstractions. I’ll be thinking about them.
Bob Goldfarb is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. He also writes for eJewishPhilanthropy.com.
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