Thursday, May 1, 2008

Israel Stood Still

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a sad yet important day on the Israeli calendar, falling just days short of Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for fallen soldiers) and Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day, where we will celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary of Statehood.) The streets are beautiful, with Israeli flags swaying gently off many balconies and buildings.

Last night, Steph, Nicole and I watched the annual Yom HaShoah ceremony that occurs at Yad Vashem (Jerusalem's Holocaust Memorial,) which is televised for the whole State to see. It was a somber event, of course, with a children's harmonica choir (very interesting,) addresses by both Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, and 6 survivor speeches, one for each of the 6 million Jews that were killed. The ceremony was entirely in Hebrew, so it was hard to understand much of what was being said, but the most moving part was hearing the survivor's stories (which were subtitled in English so we could understand them.) The survivors all moved to Israel, so along with their stories we heard about their contributions to the State of Israel; all of them were involved with the creation of the State in some way, shape or form. One of the survivors was single-handedly responsible for photographing the Eichmann documents, which proved the Eichmann was 100% guilty for the crimes he committed during the Holocaust. The trial was the major turning point in Israeli Holocaust discussion and education; a huge step for both the survivors and for the State herself. These survivors are as much a part of Israeli history and independence as Theodore Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, and the like.

This morning, a few students put together a lovely morning service in honor of the day. I sadly missed most of it, due to a sudden case of pinkeye, but I made it just in time to hear the end of the Torah service and to say Kaddish Yatom, the mourner's Kaddish, that was written specifically for the Holocaust by famous author Elie Wiesel. After the service, we went onto King David Street to wait for the siren, the 2 minute period of time where the entire State of Israel stops whatever they are doing to remember the victims and heroes of the Holocaust.

The siren was an event I was very much looking forward to experiencing in Israel, simply because there is nothing like it in the United States. As we stood on King David Street, one of the busiest streets in Jerusalem, I kept thinking about how the people would react; would they really stop their cars, stop the construction, stop dead in their tracks as they walk to school, work, etc.? The answer was YES. As soon as the alarm sounded, the cars stopped and their passengers got out and stood silently next to them. The construction on the street came to a silent halt, except for the machine that did not turn off. The people walking hurriedly down the street stopped with their heads down in honor of the dead. It was an eerie and beautiful kind of silence (with the exception of the construction) that filled the Jerusalem air with respect and honor for 2 whole minutes as Israel stood still.

And then, all of the sudden, the siren stopped and life went on as normal. People got back into their cars, kept walking down the street, picked up their jackhammers and went back to work on their cranes. Just like that.

We made our way back onto the HUC campus for a joint ceremony with the Israeli rabbinic students, which featured a liberal rabbi who survived the camps in Poland. Much of the ceremony was in hebrew, and I was feeling pretty terrible from my cold, so I don't remember much. The most meaningful part of the ceremony, for me, was the Rabbi's recitation of Eil Male Rachamim, a prayer that asks Gd to keep the dead upon/under Gd's wing and take their soul(s) into eternal life. I've heard this prayer sung several times, as it is always recited in Jewish funerals, but to hear a survivor recite it with his strong tenor voice was a very, very powerful moment.

I expected today to be a very solemn day, and the evening before/morning of both were. However, I was surprised by how quickly the day seemed to go on as normal. I guess that's just Israel doing her thing, going on with her life despite the hardship and tragedies that have occurred in her history. In a way, it's beautiful; the idea that this country will continue to live and to thrive with the 60 years of strength and courage she already has under her belt. On the other hand, it doesn't seem like enough time was spent honoring those who perished, though no one knows the real meaning of "enough." Just another set of opposites that I am left questioning and thinking about in my last few weeks here.

I leave you with a passage found in Mishkan T'fillah, adapted from the writings of survivors Elie Wiesel and Albert Friedlander:

We begin--with silence.
The silence of death:
the silence after destruction;
there are times when songs falter,
when darkness fills life,
when martyrdom becomes
a constellation of faith
against the unrelieved black of space about us.
There are no words to reach beyond the edge of night,
no messenger to tell the full tale.
There is only silence.
The silence of Job.
The silence of the Six Million.
The silence of memory.
Let us remember them as we link our silences.

זכרונם לברכה
May their memory be for a blessing.

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