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Yom HaZicharon 5781

By Rabbi Amanda Golby

Burning candles in a row in the dark.

In Israel one of the most solemn days of the Jewish year, probably for secular Israelis, the most solemn day is Yom HaZicharon, Remembrance Day, which immediately precedes Yom HaAtzmaut. In English, its full name is Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers of Israel and the victims of terrorism.

When I was growing up in London, both Remembrance Sunday and indeed November 11th itself were both taken seriously by all. Then, for a long time, they somehow became diminished in importance for the majority, perhaps being days of memory, rather than something active, then, sadly, because of lives lost in Northern Ireland, in the Falklands, in Afghanistan and other places, it has again, and indeed rightly, assumed a new significance.

However in Israel it truly affects every family. The first time I was there for this day made a great impression which has remained with me. We attended a local ceremony, perhaps not dissimilar to the very many local ceremonies that we see here at war memorials throughout the UK, but it was totally different. All those actively participating were in their final year of school, about to enter the army, and they were each remembering loved ones, fathers, uncles, brothers, other family members, close friends who had lost their lives in active service in recent years. That was very sobering. My other memory from that day is seeing outside the military cemetery on Har Herzl, (we did not go in, so as not to disturb the families), boxes and boxes of flowers, the gift of the Jerusalem florists to the bereaved families. We do not associate flowers with Jewish cemeteries but they are common in parts of Israel at least, and it moved me greatly that rather than pay inflated prices, the families just had to pick them up. This was during the mid 80s, and I’m not sure if it is still done.

The sirens followed by a one minute silence at 8pm on the eve of Yom HaZicharon, and a two minute silence on the day at 11, are taken very seriously, with cars stopping, and drivers getting out and standing in the road, or people just stopping in the street, or indeed coming out of their homes in an act of solidarity. I remember 3 years ago on the front at Tel Aviv watching crowds of young people come quietly to a particular memorial, many placing stones. Places of entertainment, cafes and restaurants are closed, only appropriate programmes are broadcast on radio and television and there are other signs of collective mourning. One of the most difficult things is the swift change from Yom HaZicharon to Yom HaAtzmaut, though I was privileged to join a special Havdalah marking the bridge between the two. Both days are of the greatest importance.

Celebrating Yom Ha’Atzmaut, commemorating Yom HaZicharon outside of Israel are more challenging, but it is certainly important both to celebrate, in ways which are meaningful to individuals and communities, but also to precede this by remembering and indeed giving thanks.

It is a strange time of the Jewish year as we journey from Pesach to Shavuot,
punctuated both by the ancient tradition of counting the Omer, and the ways in which it has been adapted over time, and the days that only came into our calendar in the 20th century. It is challenging, but important, to try to hold onto them all.

Posted on 12 April 2021