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A Reflection on Mourning and Remembrance on Yom HaZikaron

This blog post is written by Will, a Yahel fellow living in Lod.


On April 13th and 14th, I observed the Israeli holiday of Yom HaZikaron - a holiday dedicated to Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror. It is an Israeli equivalent to the American Memorial Day but its observance is completely different. Yom HaZikaron falls a week after Yom HaShoah- an Israeli/Jewish holiday dedicated to remembering the Jewish victims of the Holocaust- and a day before Yom HaAtzmaut - Israel’s Indepedence Day. These holidays are all observed in accordance to the Jewish calendar and, as such, they start at sundown and end 24/25 hours later at the following sundown.


The timing of the commemoration of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the fallen soldiers, along with victims of terror, all before immediately transitioning to celebrating Israel’s birth as a sovereign nation is not coincidental. It is a conscious choice to remind Israelis why a Jewish state is needed and what the price is that must be paid so that its citizens can enjoy collective safety, aspirations and liberation.


On Yom HaShoah, Israelis attend events known as “Zikaron B’Salon,” where holocaust survivors (and now their descendants) recount and share their stories. On that holiday morning, at 10 AM, a national siren goes off, the few cars on the road pull over, pedestrians stop walking and all traffic stops as Israel comes together to observe a moment of silence in honor of the Holocaust’s 6 million Jewish victims. A week later, on Yom HaZikaron, Israelis come together in a similar fashion when a siren goes off in the evening for 1 minute and ceremonies begin to honor those who have fallen for their country and remember those who have had their lives taken away in terror attacks. Another siren goes off the next morning, this time for 2 minutes and again the whole country comes to a standstill. In the span of a week, Israelis all take a moment of silence to remember victims of violence, past and present.


As Yom HaZikaron winds down, the mood gradually begins to shift- from tears, pain and sorrow to smiles, happiness and festivities. The sun sets down and a new day begins- Israelis transition from remembering and mourning those they have lost to celebrating and enjoying their country. In a way, it is a powerful epitome of the feeling of renewal that is marked by the beginning and closing of every Jewish holiday. Dawn and dusk are transitional moments during the day where we feel the air changing and the energy winding up or down. This contrast in the energy and atmosphere is felt every weekend in Israel. Friday mornings start hectically but the energy of the day slowly but gradually calms itself down as stores start closing one by one, between 1 and 4 pm, traffic starts to diminish, highways become less packed and the streets become quieter, filled with occasional groups of people walking to synagogue or to someone’s house for dinner. While there are specific times that designate when shabbat starts and ends, one can sense the slow arrival of Shabbat HaMalka- the Shabbat Queen. As Shabbat ends, on saturday nights, the week slowly starts again as the sun gets replaced by streetlights and the calm of Shabbat gets replaced by the bustling energy of cars on the road, public transportation running and stores opening up once again - the week begins anew. So, in a similar way that the transition from work to rest can be felt in the air on Shabbat, a change can be felt in the air in the last hours of Yom HaZikaron while the sun is still shining. Once the sun sets, Israelis make a hard transition from mourning and grieving to celebrating and rejoicing as they welcome Yom HaAtzmaut, often by listening to Israeli music.


While nearly all Israelis respect the days of Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron, opinions on the obvious intention of these days are mixed. I, myself, feel conflicted about the nationalist vibes and socially-created mood of sadness on these days. Does the memory of genocide, war and terror really need to be tied to a nationalist agenda? On the other hand, as someone who has lost a friend to terror and felt the horrific pain of losing someone to violence firsthand, I had a special appreciation for the collective expression of mourning and remembrance on Yom HaZikaron. On Yom HaShoah, there is a duty to remember so that we honor the victims of Nazi violence and never forget what happened. Yom HaZikaron, however, hits Israelis deeper and more intensely as the loss is more personal. Many Israelis know someone who has died in war, or was killed in a terror attack. Those who haven’t experienced this lost first hand usually know at least one person who has.


On Yom HaZikaron, I took some time to think about my friend Nick. He was 23 years old, had overcome an extraordinary obstacle after unexpectedly losing his father to suicide, just a day after they celebrated his 19th birthday together. Nick was an unbelievably resilient young man who was just starting to experience life as a young adult. He was working in his elementary school assisting the IT department while also helping his mother with their family business, which she was left to run alone after her husband’s unexpected passing. Despite these challenges, Nick faced life with joy and optimism. He was excited about the future and had faith in the potential that the latest information technology held in improving the world we live in. He remained sweet, cheerful and full of character. We enjoyed playing board games or catching a few drinks together, watching a sports game or discussing current events.


While I first met Nick while attending college, we became close friends once we both graduated. One evening, 4 years after he had lost his father, I approached him and told him that I, myself, had lost my father right around the time of my 18th birthday. I told him that I knew it was easy for those around us to forget that we are still dealing with the same pain since on the surface, we seem to be doing better. I offered my support and a relatable voice in case he ever wanted someone to talk to. As it turned out, Nick would eventually be the one to be there for me.


My paternal grandmother passed away in the spring of 2017 and as I needed to go through her belongings, the family memorabilia made me feel like I was reliving my father’s death all over again. I found myself feeling the pain and having flashbacks to when I first heard the news 6 years ago. Most notably, I felt myself, once again, feeling anger towards my father and life. What was different this time, however? I had Nick- someone who could relate to my experience. I called him up one evening, unexpectedly, in the summer of 2017 while I was sitting alone in my father’s apartment in Belgium. He was traveling with a group of friends in California but took the time to step aside and speak to me. When I was worried I was taking up too much of his time, he replied: “well, I’m choosing to speak to you right now!” Throughout our conversation, he amazed me as he told me that he remembered his father loved him and he didn’t feel any resentment. This was Nick, an intelligent young man with an especially high emotional intelligence who had a stunning ability to find the necessary positive outlook.


On Yom HaZikaron, in Israel, I could mourn and remember Nick in a setting where I was surrounded by people who could relate- even if these people are total strangers with unknown faces. Nick and I knew the pain we were going through having lost our fathers. On this day of remembrance, an entire nation knew the pain I, our friends and Nick’s family, go through, having lost a friend to violence.


In preparation for Yom HaZikaron, in the afternoon before sunset, our cohort in Lod watched animated videos that retold the story of fallen soldiers and victims of terror. One of the clips was an 8 minute production that recounted the story of an Ethiopian woman coming to Israel, making aliyah, but leaving behind her daughter, Tironyant Takala. While it was this woman’s dream to come to Israel- that dream felt unfulfilled while she was separated from her daughter and the rest of her family.


Through the animation, we see a woman struggling with Israeli bureaucracy in order to bring her daughter and the rest of her family to Israel. The film depicts the mother’s struggle in Israel while also showing Tiroyant in Ethiopia, yearning to make it to the promised land. Tiroyant finally makes it and arrives with her own husband and four children. It was the year 2003 and Tironyant finally made it to Israel. The family was reunited and living their dream of returning home to Zion.


In the summer of 2004, Tironyant was living in an absorption center in the southern city of Be’er Sheva. One morning in August of that year, she went grocery shopping and hopped on a bus at the Central Bus Station. A person blew themself up and Tironyant lost her life, after being reunited with her family for only a year. She was 33 years old and left behind 5 children.


Perhaps, this story struck me so intensely because of the similarities I recognized between her story and that of my friend Nick. She was returning from buying a few groceries at a local supermarket, just as Nick was doing right before he was killed. That specific attack, on August 31st, 2004, in Be’er Sheva was the catalyst that brought about the full completion of the security barrier between the West Bank and Israel proper. Similarly, it was after the attack on October 31st, 2017 that the City of New York decided to place barriers in front of important and busy sights as well as between the bike path on the Hudson River where the attack, itself, took place. Lastly, the animated clip depicted the story mainly from the mother’s point of view which made me relate to the experience of witnessing, from the sidelines, the pain that my friend’s mother has had to go through after losing her son.


As this session came to a close, our executive director read to us an Israeli poem, A Man In His Life, by Yehuda Amichai, which speaks to the notion of time. “Young people never get their time.” I thought. Tears started pouring down my face. I thought about Nick and I thought about Tironyant and all the countless people whose lives get taken away too early and unfairly. I thought about all the children and young adults the United States senselessly loses to gun violence and mass shootings. All of these young lives that never come to completion. Those who die young stay as young as they were, never entering their next stages in life. Loved ones of the victims are simply left to contemplate on the hypothetical future that would have happened. What was life supposed to look like for Tironyant and her family in Israel? What did life have in store for a young man full of talent like Nick? These are the questions loved ones keep asking themselves as the years go by.


At 8pm that evening, the siren sounded, Yom HaZikaron had started. The whole country fell silent. Public ceremonies were held honoring victims of terror and fallen soldiers. You could feel it in the air, how important it was for people to be present. While at times I was questioniong the need for this nationalistic sentiment attached to suffering, violence, war and defense, I felt overall appreciation for this space for remembrance. In the United States, we too often try to forget and move on, brush it off in the belief that this is what makes us stronger. This attitude can often make loved ones of victims of violence feel forgotten and left behind. On Yom HaZikaron, we took the time to make sure that the individual names and faces of those gone are not forgotten.


Written in memory of my friend Nicholas Cleves as well as all victims of violence around the world.