An Idiot Abroad on Yom HaZikaron
A number of years ago, I was sitting in my apartment in Tel Aviv when I heard a siren go off. First a low moan, like the acceleration of a motorcycle, and then a piercing cry.
There’s nothing particularly shocking about this. I had been living in Israel for a number of years and I had witnessed the beginnings, middles, and ends of a few rounds of violence—each one nearly identical in even its smallest details, to the extent that I can’t ever quite recall which war I’m talking about even as I talk about it.
I knew what to do. I stood up and went to the stairwell. I sat down on the steps and I waited to hear the “boom” of the rocket being intercepted by the Iron Dome.
A moment passed, and then another. The siren continued. No boom was heard and finally it dawned on me what was going on. This wasn’t a rocket siren. It was the siren for Yom HaZikaron—Israel’s Memorial Day.
I went back into my apartment and stepped out onto the balcony, just in time to hear the siren wind down mechanically as the people in the streets, who had been standing in silence, wound themselves back up into movement, busyness, life.
This has the potential to be a funny story. Its genre is that of the idiot abroad, and as I related the anecdote to my Israeli friends in the next couple of days, I found that it reliably got a good laugh.
On the other hand, there’s nothing particularly “idiotic” about my confusion. The rocket siren and the memorial siren emanate from the same unseen city infrastructure, and while they sound nearly identical, one calls us to stand and the other sends us running for cover.
The next day, on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Independence Day, I was again at my desk when I heard a peculiar sound. This time, I knew what it was. It was the aerial Independence Day show conducted yearly by the Israeli Air Force. I threw open my window to look at the planes as they made loop-de-loops up and down the coast of Tel Aviv, holding themselves in tight geometric formations and, at times, dropping little glowing fireworks—embers that drifted downward through the sky and then disappeared.
I’ve always enjoyed gazing at aircraft from the ground below. When I was a kid, my mind was utterly blown when my aunt took me to see the Blue Angels. This time, however, I found myself unable to enjoy the spectacle in that simple childlike way. Something about the planes—or rather, everything about the planes—reminded me of that most recent war in Gaza. I pictured this same tight formation of planes coming down the coast—not whimsically looping, but rather flying with single-minded determination. Not dropping fireworks, but bombs.
Memorial Day and Independence Day, in both the United States and in Israel, are commemorations of war with different inflections. One day mourns the dreadful sacrifice of war, the other celebrates the results of victory.
To commemorate each, we repurpose the technologies of war—sirens, aircraft, fireworks—a perfect marriage of medium and message.
In Israel, however, where the memory of war is never far off and the threat of war never implausible, this is bound to lead to synaptic confusion, sending Americans running for their stairwells when they should be standing in solemn reflection, or worse—triggering a trauma response in veterans.
Indeed, a number of organizations have pushed to limit the use of fireworks in Israel on Independence Day for just this reason, citing the undue psychic cost for the very soldiers these national holidays are trying to honor.
A version of this discourse has taken place in the United States as well, but it is muted for a couple of reasons. First off, a far greater share of the Israeli population knows a veteran personally than in the United States, widening the anti-firework camp from a fringe interest group to a national concern. The second reason—which is not altogether separate from the first—is that war itself, to the American consciousness, is a remote and abstracted thing. To the extent that we are aware of it, we are aware of it from headlines. It is thus (for many of us) severed from the sensory associations that might be evoked by a fireworks display.
In the United States, the fireworks might recall the “rockets’ red glare” of our national anthem. The smoking grills of a thousand Fourth of July cookouts could—potentially—recall the smoking battlefields of our own inaugural war. For most people, however, fireworks and cookouts are just that—fireworks and cookouts. There is a perceptual gap between the symbol and the symbolized.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Visitors from America are often moved and impressed by the solemnity of Memorial Day in Israel. For a brief moment, the country stands still together. Cars stop on the highways so that their drivers can step out onto the pavement and stand for the duration of the siren.
Our own Memorial Day, on the other hand, is used as a flimsy pretense for half-off sales at national retail chains.
Perhaps, however, the feverish consumerism of American Memorial Day is preferable. It speaks to the quiet sense of security and stability that pervades American life, the ways in which we see history as a domesticated animal rather than an untamed force, consigned safely to the textbooks where it cannot hurt us.
The atmosphere of Memorial Day in Israel, on the other hand, speaks to the fact that, in Israel, history runs wild in the streets.
It also speaks to the fact that Israel’s existence is a source of ongoing controversy—debated fiercely between Israel’s supporters and Israel’s detractors.
Controversy, generally, has a short shelf life. Like a wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl or a slap at the Oscars, controversy bursts into public consciousness, dominates it, and then fades. Israel’s founding, however, defies this axiom. It is a controversy that somehow manages to endure—day after day, year after year, decade after decade.
This is because Israel’s founding moment never really passed into history. It remains a “current event,” evidenced by certain Palestinians who still think it’s possible that the Israelis will pack up and leave; as well as by certain settlers who fancy themselves pioneers—latterday members of Israel’s founding generation.
Living in Israel, I wasn’t immune to these distortions of time—this collapse of past, present, and future into one enduring moment. In the sound of the siren and the sight of the planes, I became lost—forgetting, for a moment, whenI was.
As municipalities across Israel deliberate over the question of fireworks, what they are really asking is this: how can one memorialize that which hasn’t passed into history? How can one celebrate the founding of a state which still hasn’t found its final form, whose boundaries and borders still shift and writhe? How can we reconcile and confront a past that hasn’t yet had its fill of the present?
About a decade ago, when I was working as a kindergarten teacher, I liked to lead a daily meditation with the children in my class. One day, I asked them to close their eyes and to pay attention to the moment we call “now.” I asked them to note, if they could, when one “now” ended and another “now” began, or if, perhaps, it was all just one continuous “now.”
The children observed that “nows” come and go at a breakneck pace. Moments end. Mysteriously but inevitably, one “now” wilts and fades away as another comes to take its place.
Alas, I’m no longer a kindergarten teacher. Today, I am a rabbinical student, and thus in the business of offering prayers. My prayer, then, for Israel on this Yom HaZikaron, is that this decades-long moment yields finally to a new “now,” allowing us to at last mourn what we have lost, celebrate that we have survived, and look forward together.
Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.