Yesterday was Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, a day about looking back; today, on Yom Ha’atzmaut, we celebrated the present; tomorrow, I go back to my regular (or not so regular, all things considered) life. Each of these three days feel so different in Israel than they do in the United States, yet every one felt so natural to me.
I spent Yom HaZikaron at the elementary school in Bat Yam where I am now volunteering twice a week. In contrast to the United States, where Memorial Day is mostly about sales and celebrating the beginning of the summer, Yom HaZikaron in Israel is a day of mourning for the entire nation. Sirens sound across the country at night and again the next morning, and everyone stops what they are doing and stands still for a moment of silence. As people like to say here, no one is unaffected by Yom HaZikaron. But, I think this is not entirely true. There are still thousands of new immigrants arriving in Israel every year who do not have family members who have yet served in the army. In fact, many of the students at the school in Bat Yam are first generation Israelis or are new immigrants themselves, so I was not sure how they would respond to the ceremony and story of Yom HaZikaron.
Like normal elementary school children, the beginning of the tekes was a scene of controlled chaos as children tossed tennis balls, played tag and generally made a lot of noise and refused to hold still. I almost wondered if we would hear the siren over all the noise. Yet as the principal asked the students to rise in preparation for the siren, the kids on the sidelines playing ball ran to join their classmates, and the instant the wail of the siren began, every single child stood, feet together and heads bent, completely still and silent for 120 seconds. I don’t honestly know what percentage of the student body at the school are new immigrants, first generation Israelis or come from well-seasoned Sabra families. What I do know is that the sound of that siren is the call of national identity, and in observing the two minutes of silence, every single child was a part of it.
I got back to Jerusalem in time to change and get ready for “epic parties”. Purim totally won me over with it’s preponderance of street parties and general merriment, so when I was told Yom Ha’aztmaut is like a bigger version of Purim, I knew to be excited. My roommate and I headed out to the streets at night with tickets to “the best party in Jerusalem”. As we meandered our way to Mamilla, we passed probably a dozen street concerts, where thousands of people were gathered dancing, drinking and avoiding the teenagers who were running around with shaving cream. We got to our party, the chic-est event I have seen in Jerusalem, and spent the night dancing with hundreds of young Israelis as we listened to American club music and watched a light show over the walls of the Old City. I lived in Washington DC last year, supposedly the site of the best 4th of July celebrations in the US, so I feel qualified to say that America’s got NOTHING on an Israeli Independence Day celebration. In some ways I felt weird celebrating a country where I live as a non-citizen, but the energy was infectious and inescapable. All of Jerusalem was one giant party, and I was automatically a part of it.
Finally, today, I spent a few hours catching up with one of my former AVODAH housemates. It was such a pleasure to see her, walk through the various picnics around the city and catch up on what is going on with all the people I used to live with. Most of my AVODAH corps stayed in DC and are now almost all working at non-profits around the city, hanging out with each other a few times of a month and generally plugging away at life. I felt like I was listening to an alternate version of what my life could have been, like a “choose your own adventure” where I got a rare opportunity to see what a different choice would lead to. Talking to my former housemate and one of my best friends from college who visited Israel a few weeks ago highlighted changes in myself. Both my AVODAH housemate and my friend from college told me I seemed “so Israeli” and that it looks like I really fit in and am native to this country. Aside from some momentary panic that maybe I need to start putting more effort in to my clothes and appearance, this was such a nice thing to hear. One of my struggles this year has been against feeling like I am not just another transitory American come to “do my time” in Israel. I don’t know why, but I have needed to feel like I am really a part of the country, even if just for a short time. Which means, now that I have about 4 more months of certainty in Israel before I face the great unknown, that maybe I need to think about what makes my life here feel like it fits me so well…