Sunday, May 08, 2011

The honey and the sting

There wasn't a dry eye in the hall tonight as the short video about Jerusalemite Noam Cohen was screened. Images of a bright eyed lively young man filled the screen but we all knew the inevitable end of the story.

Noam had spent most of his adult life in the murky world of counter-terrorism. In February 1994 one of his Palestinian informants set an ambush for him and Noam was killed. I remember it well, the news stories of this vibrant young man, the eloquence of his family, the visceral feeling of someone so alive being extinguished just like that.

Tonight his sister helped keep his memory alive by addressing tonight's memorial gathering, telling us about her brother, but also about the many young Noams today who bear his name. She reminded us of the many thousands of young religious Israelis who may never have heard of her brother, but who each day honour his legacy by blending a devoutly religious way of life with serving their country and participating in Israel's mainstream culture and workforce, as Noam had. Knowing that so many people had, knowingly or not, drawn inspiration from Noam's brief life was the greatest memorial to him.

Only a few months before Noam Cohen was shot in the line of duty, father and son Moredekhai and Shalom Lapid were murdered in Kiryat Arba, one of several fatal terror attacks in the months after the Oslo Peace accords were announced. I remember that it was around Hannukah time and the deaths of father and son Lapid, a name meaning torch, a symbol of the Hannukah story, is lodged in my memory. Lapid senior was a Soviet Jewish dissident who had made it to Israel and become involved in the settlement movement, one of the pioneers of the renewal of Hebron's Jewish community, his son a brilliant young Torah scholar.

Today two of Mordekhai's grandchildren bear his and his son's names. Their other grandfather, prominent Hebrew linguist Avshalom Kor, spoke movingly of how vividly his two young grandsons remember the relatives they never met, how naming them after the murdered Mordekhai and Shalom has created an almost mystical bond between the generations. Kor recounted how young Mordekhai upon seeing a portrait of his late grandfather pointed and said "Grandpa". His younger brother saw the portrait of Shalom hanging next to it and said simply "me".

It was not an easy evening, too many difficult memories, chilling stories and raw emotion. There were cathartic songs in between, the lyrics from Psalms and the liturgy, and of course, at the end Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem whose central theme is hope and continuity.

This is what Memorial Day is in Israel, something deeply personal, painful and tangible.

As I sat in that auditorium this evening I was reminded of a couple from Florida I met earlier today.

I was hastily finishing up some errands with the kids at the local mall. Near the fountain two large Israeli flags had been placed at either end of a black table where two men were setting up memorial candles in the shape of a Magen David.

At around 17:50 an announcement came over the tannoy announcing that all the shops would be closing early at 18:00 sharp to mark the start of Memorial Day that evening. An elderly man and woman approached me and asked if I could explain to them in English what had been said.

When I translated they looked a little puzzled.

Memorial Day wasn't like Shabbat said the wife, why did the shops have to close?

It was my turn to look puzzled. At first I didn't understand the connection. Then it hit, she thought perhaps there was some religious injunction forbidding work on Memorial Day. I explained that is wasn't anything religious, rather the country shut down out of respect for those who had died, and to make sure that everyone was able to get to the evening's memorial services.

The woman still looked perplexed. But in America Memorial Day is a busy shopping day she said. There are lots of sales. She looked disappointed.

It turned out they were visitors to Israel from Florida. They'd been told that this was a fun time of year to visit because of Israel Independence Day. They were looking forward to the promised festivities, but hadn't bargained for the mourning that comes first in this country, something that just seems like the most natural order of events for Israelis.

I tried to explain again, but they just didn't seem to grasp why there was mourning and only then festivities when in the US July Fourth has no connection to Memorial Day, and in any case, they'd never heard of a whole country shutting down for Memorial Day. It seemed a bit extreme to them.

Is Israel really that unusual in linking the two concepts? I haven't done an academic study of the subject, but it seems so. From an Israeli perspective it seems cliche to even mention it, how we can't free ourselves to celebrate fully on Yom Ha'atzmaut without first remembering the price of that hard won independence by paying our respects to those who paid that price.

The radio is full of sombre soft songs tonight, several penned by the late and sorely missed Naomi Shemer, whose gift it was to so beautifully convey the national mood. "The honey and the sting", she wrote "the bitter and the sweet...protect these things". It might sound trite, but that bittersweetness is I think a very Israeli perspective on life in this difficult neck of the woods. We accept this country with love, both its honey and its sting, Memorial Day and Independence Day, and if you don't take the time to truly experience the former than all the festivities of the latter are hollow.

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