Yom Hazikaron is a very powerful day. So many people in Israel have been touched by tragedy - the sorrow of having a family member killed or seriously injured in the course of serving in the military or the horror of having a family member, friend or other acquaintance who was killed or seriously injured in a terror attack. This is a small country - so the 23,928 fallen in a country of only 9 million is a very large number.
On Erev Yom Hazikaron, there are ceremonies held across the country. We normally attend the Ra'anana commemoration but due to Covid-19, spaces were limited to advance ticket holders only and there was no space left. So we watched three different nationally televised commemorations. These ceremonies included speeches from high ranking military personnel, politicians, families of the fallen and poets and writers. Many of Israel's most well known musical artists perform sombre songs at these events and torches of remembrance are lit in honour of the fallen, in each case with a detailed story of a fallen soldier or victim of a terror attack. There aren't many dry eyes watching these events.
On the day of Yom Hazikaron, which this year was yesterday April 13, 2021, there are ceremonies at the military cemeteries across the country. There is a rule that no family of any fallen soldier will be alone on this day. So soldiers who are currently serving in the army are assigned to attend these ceremonies across the country to console and support the families. Our family members have taken part in this tradition in the past. At 11 a.m., across Israel, there is a lengthy two minute siren. Much like on Yom Hashoah, the whole country comes to a standstill. Everyone stops in their place and stands silently. Throughout the day, radio stations play remembrance themed music. TV stations show documentaries about the fallen solders, the victims of terror and the tragic periods in Israel's history.
As the sun goes down, Yom Hazikaron ends and Israel pivots from one of the saddest days of the year to one of the happiest. It is simply amazing how so many people are able to do this so fluidly - but then again, I suppose that is part of life. And that is the message of these two days - to take the unspeakably sad - together with the joy - and to see it all as part of the complex state that is Israel.
Tonight's official Yom Haatzmaut celebration was reminiscent of some US 4th of July celebrations - fireworks, a military flyover, marching bands - and of course some political speeches. The initial musical performances were mostly by the Israel Military Band. Some were quite good. In between, different prominent Israelis were called up to light torches in honour of Yom Haatzmaut. Some of these torch lighting ceremonies were particularly poignant. Two Druze medical staff came up to light a torch on behalf of all of the medical workers who have worked so hard over the past year helping Israelis to fight Covid-19. They also proudly represented Israel's Druze community. Another torch was lit by a woman who had been attacked fiercely by her husband last year and had only survived due to the timely intervention of a neighbour. Both women came up to light a torch on behalf of victims of domestic violence and to raise awareness of the issue. Several others lit torches in between the various musical performances with the accompanying story of each torch lighter.
After the official national ceremony, different stations broadcast different celebrations. We recorded two of them and watched one live.
One of the highlights of evening was the program run by Idan Raichel, one of Israel's most popular musical performers. I have written about Raichel previously. Last year, on Yom Haatzmaut, during the height of Covid-19, he and his band put on an outdoor, physically distanced concert with all of the musicians spread out in a park. You can watch the 45 minute concert from last year here if the link still works. We thought it was fantastic.
This Year, Raichel outdid himself. He held a contest for soldiers from across Israel. He asked them to send him recordings of themselves singing his songs. He then picked a bunch of winners and decided to invite them to come join his nationally televised Yom Haatzmaut concert this year. But to notify each of them - he drove to their bases, with one or two of his band members - and showed up to suprise each of them and invite them personally. He also invited them to rehearse with him and his band. He recorded these suprise meetings. He visited one soldier at an outpost at Israel's southernmost border with Egypt. He visited another up near the northernmost border. And others in between.
At the Yom Haatzmaut event, he showed all of these videos and then performed one song with each of the performers, a mixture of women and men, from different regions in Israel, different backgrounds and different types of military roles. It was really quite something. The parents or other family members and friends of the soldiers were in attendance - and after each peformance Raichel asked them what they thought of the performance. He also asked the guest performers to say a few words about the experience. All of the singers and their family members were simply overwhelmed.
Ultimately, Raichel said he would pick one or more - to work with to release an original song that the selected performer writes and performs, with Raichel's help. Raichel himself was so supportive of all of these soldiers, so interested in their life stories, so self-deprecating and simply - throughout the evening - someone who projected such a sense of decency, respect and love.
After this show, there will be other musical performances throughout the evening on tv, on web sites, and live across the country. In fact, in Ra'anana, one of the performances, aimed at the younger crowd starts at 1:30 a.m. I don't think we will be attending that one. People will be hosting parties into the wee hours, setting off fireworks and generally celebrating this 73rd birthday of the state in many different ways.
Tomorrow the annual national bible contest will be televised - for participants from Israel and across the world. There will also be an air show, a rave party at Tel-Aviv's Yarkon park, street parties all day across the country and other festivities everywhere. Israelis will head to the beaches and the national parks in the expected mid-20s heat - and there will be barbecues everywhere (our place included). The chick peas are soaking overnight for the homemade humus.
Being in Israel for these special days is really a great privilege - right up there with being here for the Jewish holydays - Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and others. There is a really powerful mix of remembrance, loss, determination and resolution - that imbues both Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah and Yom Hazikaron and then the contrasting happiness of celebrating Yom Haatzmaut. This year there is a sense of cautious optimism that has added to the joy. Even though Israel remains mired in political quicksand without a new government and facing the prospect of yet another election, there is a feeling that Covid-19 is being defeated.
I hope that the rest of the world will soon feel this same level of optimism in the fight against Covid-19 everywhere. Wishing everyone a Chag Sameach and the best of health.