An Unexpected Juxtaposition
For my gap year (the year between high school and college) I chose to study at Nishmat, an Israeli institute for advanced Women's Torah learning located in Jerusalem. I anticipated the cultural experience that I would receive being immersed in Israeli life-while Nishmat does provide a program for English speaking students, most of the classes are taught in Hebrew and the dorm rooms consist of one English speaker and four Israelis. I did not know what to expect. But I did know that I wanted a change. I wanted to take some time away from my Teaneck lifestyle. I wanted to feel the land of Israel, to experience the days and holidays with Israelis, to hear the Hebrew language in all places I went, to understand the quick paced, passionate society that I had never been tremendously exposed to before. I arrived in Israel in the summer of 2007. Slowly, I picked up Hebrew. As the year went by, I looked for the differences between my life as a New Jerseyian and my roommates' lives as dossim (a slang term for religious Israelis.) I found a few. Sababa is definitely a good word to know. It means "cool" or "awesome." Everything in Israel is sababa.
"I went to the supermarket," I would tell my roommates.
"The class is so interesting!"
"Oh no! I can't find my toothbrush."
I saw how able my friends were to cope with minute inconveniences. My Israeli madricha (Hebrew for "mentor") had a saying: "Lizrom," which means "to flow." Her philosophy was that people need to accept the world for what it is and free themselves of worrying about things they cannot control. "People need," she would say, "to go with the flow."
Of course, not every Israeli I encountered had this attitude. There were the horn honkers in the center of town who seemed very anxious about arriving at their destinations. There were the shoppers in the shuq (farmer's market) who would scream at other, possibly unfamiliar customers as they took their time paying for their produce. And, of course, there were the line pushers who, well, in a very proactive way, made sure the line moved quickly.
Yet, as a whole, Israel itself, a tiny country located in the Middle East, in the midst of wars and terror, inundated with death and grief, plagued with fighting and misery, somehow revels in a state of permanent exhilaration. The citizens find happiness in times of sorrow, they unite to cope with pain, they sing during times of insecurity. They make it possible to live through devastation.
Towards the end of my year in Israel, I was struck by the placement of two holidays. The first, Yom Hazikaron, commemorates all the fallen soldiers from every battle fought. The second, Yom Haatzmaut, celebrates the day the country was declared independent on the 5th of the Hebrew month of Iyyar, in 1948. The two holidays fall back to back respectively.
Having grown up in a Zionist community and having gone to a Zionist elementary school and high school, I have always celebrated both days. I have always been taught the history behind the days, the reasons for commemorating and celebrating on them. I remember on one Yom Hazikaron watching a documentary about a Pennsylvania family who lost their son and brother in the Lebanon War. I also remember going home that night and sleeping in my own bed, refreshing from the day's sadness and waking up the next morning, new and whole. That morning, being Yom Haatzmaut, my high school celebrated with blue and white cookies, drinks, cupcakes, dancing, singing, music, balloons, smiles, happiness. We all were happy, purely and distinctly happy.
But being in Israel was very different. The night of Yom Hazikaron, all Nishmat students gathered into a classroom. There was a projector and we were going to watch a slide show. "A slide show," I thought. "Well, I have seen that before." I was expecting something similar to my previous experiences. A bitter taste of distant reality. But, what unfolded in the next three hours was something I could have never prepared for. The first image we saw was of a man, aged 23, smiling. I can't remember his name. But as his picture flashed onto the screen a friend of mine sitting one row ahead of me stood up. She began to speak about this person. Her brother-in-law. He died in the Gulf War of 1991. When she finished her short commemoration, another picture flashed onto the screen. A young man, aged 20. He looked like he was taking a hike. My other friend stood up. This picture was of her friend who was killed in combat three years before. She cried. We all cried. And for every picture that came upon the screen, there was another story, told by another Nishmat student, another tragedy, another loss.
I hadn't even known that half of them lost loved ones. My friends. The people I ate lunch with. The people I went to class with. The people I joked around with. All had stories to tell. But they weren't stories; they were lives of people known and loved. I couldn't look at my friends in the same way after that night, knowing how much they suffered. I did not know how to tell them how sorry I was, or if I even should.
I also didn't know how to celebrate Independence Day the following evening. My school had prepared a hagiga (celebration) for the students and the community. But, how could I bring myself to smile and sing songs of praise when I was just introduced to the surrounding hardships? I entered the room of the hagiga. I saw cookies and cupcakes and balloons and drinks and dancing people. Lots and lots of dancing people.
My Israeli friend saw me and grabbed my hand. She forced me to dance in the circle with the others, to smile and jump and sing like the others. She was smiling. She was passionate. I found myself imitating her. I began to smile and sing and jump. I became connected to the circle of people dancing. I remembered their faces from the night before. Most of them had spoken during the ceremony. All of them had cried. And now, all of them were dancing.
What I realized beyond everything during those two days was this: For every time I celebrated those days before I went to Israel, I allowed myself to experience two separate emotions. On Yom Hazikaron, I felt sad. On Yom Haatzmaut, I felt happy. I transitioned from one to the other easily, as I was far away from where everything was happening. But, in Israel, feeling the close to where everything happened, I couldn't possibly transition from one day to the next. Both days were one and the same.
Neither could exist without the other. For every Israeli, every day is a day of remembrance and celebration. Every day they remember those they have lost and celebrate the freedom they have gained. The two days called Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut are there to emphasize the feelings that they constantly live with. Their emotions of grief and excitement are intertwined; their happiness is tainted with the sadness of their devastation, and their sadness is strengthened by their past accomplishments and hope for the future.
As Golda Meir once said, "Those who don't know how to weep with their whole heart don't know how to laugh either." The only bliss we can ever know as Jews is the bliss that has been challenged by suffering. Without knowing sadness, we would not appreciate the goodness. Zikaron and Atzmaut; bravery through tears.
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