On Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) this past Tuesday, I went with my son and daughter to Kiryat Shaul Cemetery in Tel Aviv, one of the country’s largest military cemeteries.
We know cemeteries to be tranquil places, usually with few visitors. On a typical day, we might find the grave of a loved one or friend, stand in silent contemplation, perhaps recite Kaddish, leave a stone behind. But every Yom HaZikaron in Israel, where the trauma of wars and loss are coded into the national DNA, cemeteries overflow with visitors, with families gathering — one, two, three generations — to spend time together, remembering.
This coming back year after year creates a sense of reunion among families whose loved ones are buried near one another. Strangers become part of a large extended family, connected by the shared experience of loss.
In a beautiful tribute, on Yom HaZikaron every fallen soldier is honored by the presence of an active-duty soldier standing by their graveside. For the second year, my son, who serves as a lawyer in the IDF, guarded the grave of a young woman, an only child, who had died at age 19. Her parents, Holocaust survivors, visited every year for decades, but both have passed away.
This year, my daughter and I joined him, the three of us standing to honor her life and sacrifice.
Adjacent to her grave lies a soldier who fell at age 26 in the Six Day War, leaving behind a widow and two young children who never knew their father. They come annually with their growing families, and they remembered my son from last year.
Not only did the widow embrace my son and thank him for returning, she thanked me for my son — an incredibly moving thing for any parent to hear, particularly in this context.
It’s through these personal exchanges that thousands of active-duty soldiers standing guard hear from family members about the lives of the fallen soldiers, transmitting stories and memories to the next generation. Offering another tribute and act of remembrance, the story of every one of Israel’s fallen are recorded on a website maintained by the government, called Izkor.
As many know, at 11:00 am on Yom HaZikaron, sirens call the country to silent attention. Everything comes to a standstill for two minutes. When the sirens sounded at the cemetery where we stood, tens of thousands of people — shoulder-to-shoulder at every grave — stood silently as one, bound together by common sacrifice in defense of a precious nation. It was a searing moment, unlike any I’d experienced before.
In a country where over 24,000 people have died serving in Israel’s military, virtually every Israeli has a fallen friend or family member, and so the heartache on Yom HaZikaron is everywhere. The music on radio stations is somber; the names of the fallen are broadcast on TV, along with programs honoring the dead and highlighting the ordeal of bereaved families. Places of entertainment are closed.
Then, in an extraordinary feat that speaks to the resilience of Israel’s people, we transition at nightfall from the deep sadness of Yom HaZikaron to the euphoric celebration of Israel’s independence on Yom Ha’Atzmaut.
And celebrate we did.
Much like on the 4th of July, there’s a predilection for Israelis to have BBQs, called mangal in Hebrew. The celebration has a distinctly communal feel, with public spaces and parks filled with groups clustered around small, portable charcoal grills. The delicious smells and laughter intermingle. I had the pleasure of attending multiple BBQs, with one culminating in the exuberant singing of Shirei Eretz Yisrael, the stirring, patriotic folk songs associated with Israel’s founding.
Over Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, the protests both for and against judicial reform quieted down. There was a sense of collective narrative that transcended politics: We are here after 2,000 years of exile, living in this land that we built and sacrificed so much to defend. None of us will ever forget what it took to realize this moment — equal measures of grief and celebration.
I returned to New York after the privilege of experiencing these two profoundly sacred days in Israel with the hope that, someday, the grief would be far, far eclipsed by the celebration.