These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni Guest Post] Yom Ha… Season as Israelis

Posted on April 12, 2013 by The Director of Digital Media

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New Alumni Blog Post!
Stef Jadd Susnow (Year Program ’06-’07, PEP ’07-’09) 
and Matt Susnow (Year Program ’06-’07) 
Write about the "Yom Ha..." Season in Israel...
      it's a truly special experience being in Israel
      for these national holidays.

This week marked the beginning of one of the most poignant times on the Israeli national calender, a period I like to refer to as Yom Ha… season. Within the span of one week three major commemorative holidays occur: Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day). The emotional roller-coaster that the close proximity of these holidays create was thoughtfully designed when established by the Knesset (Israeli government). By concentrating these national commemorations across eight days, we have no choice but to see how the Holocaust, Israel’s many wars, and Israel’s independence are intrinsically tied.

This week began with Yom HaShoah, whose full name is Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah, “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”. As indicated in the name, this day is not only for commemorating the millions of lives that were lost, the millions that were murdered at the hands of the Nazis, but also for acknowledging and celebrating the heroism and resistance that is so often overlooked when talking about the Shoah (Holocaust). This point was driven home this year at the national tekes (ceremony) whose theme was the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

A couple words about Israeli tekesim (ceremonies). The tekes is an Israeli institution, and there seems to be a pretty standard formula that goes into any tekes, whether happy or sad. There is a host who guides you through the ceremony and announces the speakers. There are often soldiers standing at attention. There are generally readings (poems, excerpts, testimonials,etc.), there are always songs – sometimes sung by famous people, but more often sung by a choir with choreographed dance moves, there are speeches – in our case, the President and the Prime Minister, then a Rabbi – in our case the Chief Rabbi – offers a prayer and then everyone stands to sing HaTikvah, the national anthem.

Now back to Yom HaShoah. Matt and I tried to figure out where a local tekes was happening (in Jerusalem we always knew where to go), but we couldn’t find one in our neighborhood. That left us sitting at home to watch the national tekes live-streaming on the computer, which in the end, I’m glad we did. Like I mentioned above, this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the largest and one of the most significant acts of resistance by the Jews during WWII. On the eve of Passover 1943, in response to the impending deportation of the residents of the Ghetto to concentration camps, Jewish insurgents attacked the Nazi forces, throwing Molotov cocktails and hand grenades. After a number of weeks, the uprising was eventually suppressed by the Nazis, but only after tens of thousands of people died. While only a small moment in the vast horrors of the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising has taken on epic significance in the Israeli collective memory as a point of pride, a time when the Jews of Europe stood up to defend themselves. The message of both the President and the Prime Minister on this solemn anniversary was: we tried, but didn’t have the means to successfully defend ourselves then, but now we have a Jewish army and this will never happen again.

On the morning of Yom HaShoah in Israel (this will happen again next week on Yom HaZikaron) a siren is blared across all of the country for two full minutes. During this time people stop what they’re doing and stand at attention. Cars stop, even on the highway, and drivers get out to stand and pay tribute to the victims of the Holocaust. I find this to be an extremely moving and powerful moment. On the bus on the way to my office we got stuck in some traffic. As we sat there I kept checking my watch, knowing that the siren was meant to go off at 10am. At two minutes to 10 I looked around my bus and realized that the majority of my fellow passengers appeared to be pushing 80. This made sense as we were just a few stops from the shuk, the outdoor market, which, as I have noticed when doing my shopping, is the central hang out for the retired and elderly in Haifa. The realization that the vast majority of people around me where alive during the Holocaust, some of whom were probably survivors themselves, gave me chills. I looked at my watch again, it read 10:00, but I didn’t hear the siren. The hum and rattle of the bus was so loud. I looked outside and saw that the people on the sidewalk were standing like statues and our bus had come to a stop. But no one on the bus seemed to notice. I immediately stood up in my seat, opened the small window next to me and put my ear up to the opening. Above the sound of the bus I could faintly make out the sound of the siren. At this point a handful of other people on the bus also picked up on what was going on and were too standing at their seats. Most people just sat there. A couple of women, probably in their early 80’s, were carrying on a conversation throughout the full two minutes, the woman sitting next to me kept sitting, reading her book of tehilim (psalms). Another woman not far from me kept asking a young man why the bus had stopped. We really couldn’t hear a thing. The whole time I stood there debating whether or not to say something. Should I whisper to women around me that the siren was sounding or should I just stand silently and hope they figure it out. What I really wanted to do was shout to the bus driver to turn off the bus! By the time I had weighed all my options in my head, the siren had ended, people were walking around and the bus was moving again. I sat back down in my seat feeling a mixture of confusion and disappointment. What if I didn’t do the right thing? Had I let the people on my bus down?

Later in the day I was uplifted by a friend’s 6 year old son who explained to me how his kindergarten teacher taught them how to stand still and quiet and how they practiced doing it before the actual siren went off. Even at a young age, children are taught the importance of paying respect, not just in their minds and words, but also in a physical outward expression. I think this is an important lesson to learn.