Usually, when I’m writing about a series of events, I try to describe them in the order in which they occurred. Easier for me; easier for the readers. Let me break that ‘rule’ somewhat and let you know that the last scene I will be describing was the guys gallumping around our shul on the morning of Yom Haatzmaut, (Independence Day) doing the usual yeshiva-bochur trot. If someone was photographing this event (and somebody did), an attentive viewer would notice that there were a few of the daveners not joining in. One of them was me, for a number of reasons I’ll get to later. For now, let’s just say that I don’t go around holding hands with other guys.
Now we can start at the beginning, which is Yom Hashoah, always a week before Yom Haaztmaut. Here in The Land, there are various events to honor the six million martyrs, at which each year a few of the Survivors are singled out for special mention, which usually means they get written about in the newspapers and they get to light a candle at an official ceremony. Otherwise, not much happens except for the sirens at 10 AM, at which time the country comes to a standstill for two minutes. More often than not, I’m in our apartment when the sirens go off, and I stop whatever I’m doing and go to the windows in our living room and look out. But there’s not much to see. There isn’t much vehicular or pedestrian traffic on our block at that time of the day, so there’s no sense that anything different from the usual is going on.
This year, however, I was on a bus heading into Jerusalem (Thursday=shuk day) when the sirens went off – not that I could hear anything inside the bus with the windows closed. The bus came to a halt behind a line of similarly motionless vehicles, many of whose drivers were standing next to their cars. My fellow passengers began to realize what was going on and, those of us who had the room to do so got up and stood motionless for the duration of the two minutes. That’s when I felt part of the moment, part of the national ethos, in a way I wouldn’t just by looking at the Facebook videos of traffic stopped on random roads or by looking out my window at a deserted street.
The two minutes being over, traffic resumed, and we were on our way into Jerusalem. It goes without saying that I stopped at Power Coffee Works as part of my shuk-shopping itinerary. Part of the fun in being there – besides the awesome coffee – is that I invariably get into a conversation with someone, usually with someone I’ve never met before. This time it was with a young lady, new to our shores, who had been in the shuk when the sirens went off. I could only imagine what she saw: hundreds of employees and maybe thousands of shoppers, tourists, and passers-by stopping what they were doing to commemorate the Martyrs of the Holocaust. That’s would make quite an impression on someone who had never experienced it.
I wonder about Yom Hashoah sometimes; that is, I wonder if the commemorations will continue after the last Survivors are gone. I remember reading years ago about the demise of the last remaining Civil War soldier (Yankee or Confederate), and then the last widow of a Civil War soldier, and then the last African-American child born into slavery. More recently, the last veterans who fought for any country in W.W. I. (and survived the bloody, senseless carnage) have passed. Even the remaining soldiers who fought in W.W. II and are able to show up at the annual parades are fewer and fewer. There will come a time when even the last Jewish infant born during the death throes of the Third Reich is no longer available to light a candle. Will there continue to be sirens on that day throughout The Land at ten o-clock in the morning? Your guess is as good as mine.
A tradition is a tradition. Every year since 2008 (the first year we were all here), we have celebrated Yom Haatzmaut with our friends June and Jeff (except for the one year when they were in The States). The first number of years, we joined them at a barbecue in Rosh Haayin at the home of an Israeli couple they had met in Texas. Then something happened, this couple was no longer together, and there was no more barbecue. For a the next few years, Barbara and I took the bus down to Elezar for a barbecue at June and Jeff’s house. The last several years, the four of us have gotten together for lunch at Piccolino, a dairy restaurant in Jerusalem. This year, we would have a problem. Barbara was leaving for The States the eve of Yom Haaztmaut – something about seeing Tina and David and their two sons, who also happen to be our grandsons (what a coincidence!). We had no choice; we would have to pre-pone our celebration to Sunday.
Therefore, we met our friends at the Jaffa Gate and headed down to a Korean restaurant on Chabad St. in the Jewish quarter, a place that’s been open for maybe six months. The food (noodles, vegetables, Korean sushi) was tasty and moderately priced. The service was friendly, the ambiance pleasant. However, it’s a very small place, so don’t show up with an assortment of your nearest and dearest. Also, the selection of hot, caffeinated beverages is non-existent. Do not worry; my boys will take you to another place.
Jeff knows his way around the Old City, and he suggested we head over to the Austrian Hospice, where we could get some tea or coffee. According to the conveniently placed maps of the Old City, this hospice is right around the corner from Our Lady of the Spasms, if that makes it any easier to find. To get to either of these landmarks, one needs to wander through various part of the Muslim Quarter. Jeff made sure we passed by the Kotel katan, the small section of the Western Wall, off all by its lonesome, conveniently placed near a pile of garbage, a distance from where the main ‘action’ is.
As far as the Austrian Hospice is concerned, I would have lived out my days in The Land without knowing about this place, if it weren’t for Jeff. Even if you know where it is, you wouldn’t think of it as the kind of place where you can just walk in off the street.
Actually, you can’t; you have to ring the bell first, and then they buzz you in. But anybody can do it. As you might expect, this facility – more than 150 years old – was established for Christian pilgrims to the ‘Holy Land,’ and it looks like the kind of ornate structure that would have been built in the middle of the nineteenth century by a European power trying to establish a toehold in what was then a backwater of the Ottoman Empire. It still functions as a hospice. There are rooms that one could stay in, but its main attraction today is the café/coffee shop. There’s no way the four of us could eat anything there, but, not surprisingly, they have coffee and tea on offer, which one can sip at a table in their garden, completely separate from the street noise right outside their door. I suppose it’s one place where the ambience far outshines their food.
Even before we had made our lunch plans with our friends, we had agreed to meet Natania for dinner at Noctorno, one of the ‘happening’ restaurants in Jerusalem, the kind of establishment that does more business in five minutes than the Seoul House would do in the course of a lunch trade. We walked out of the Old City up Rehov Yaffo and said goodbye to our friends. We then continued walking, stopping at a chain drug store and at the shuk to get some supplies for our daughter, then walking through the Nachlaot neighborhood to the restaurant. Quite a walk for one day! Jeff had mentioned that a friend of his had invited him to join in a hike up in The Galil, supposedly an eight-hour trek. I know that would have been a piece of cake for my father, of blessed memory, in his younger days with the New York Ramblers hiking club, and something I would have considered doing once upon a time. But not now; not now.
Time to take a pause and let the rest of the world catch up. Yom Haaztmaut would begin Wed. night, preceded by Yom Hazikaron a day earlier. Unlike Yom Hashoa, which viscerally affects a dwindling section of the population here in The Land, Yom Hazikaron seems to embrace in its tentacles an ever-growing section of our neighbors and landsmen, as every year there are more and more victims of terror and soldiers who have died. Whether in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv or Central Park in Ma’ale Adumim, there will be a ceremony, names will be read off, speeches will be made, appropriate music will be played, and the standard prayers recited. Although the two of us have not ‘lost’ anyone in combat or by terror, Barbara and I usually attend our local ceremony; we figure it’s the least we can do to show our respect for the Fallen.
Something occurred to me as I was watching the goings-on. Most of the time, Israel is a fairly loosey-goosey kind of a place. Just look how people are dressed, whether it’s going to a beit knesset or the actual Knesset. The folks here are not known for standing on ceremony in their personal interactions. Except for a tekes, an actual ceremony, when there is a stand-at-attention kind of solemnity that might seem out of character – but it’s not.
Our only interaction with the Israeli military has been when Natania or the child of friends was inducted or completed basic training in the IDF, and there you would be invited to a tekes in which hundreds of soldiers would be going through their drills, whose main purpose is to show that, with a little effort, you can get hundreds of formerly undisciplined teenagers to follow a series of commands in unison. And that’s the culture carried into civilian life that we were watching, the formalism that seems otherwise absent in The Land on other days.
As in Yom Haatzmaut. Everyone comments on it because it’s impossible not to notice when Yom Hazikaron becomes Yom Haatzmaut: how the commemoration for the Fallen turns into the celebration for the living in the twinkling of an eye.
Barbara would miss Independence Day this year; she was on her way to the airport on the evening of. I would have helped her carry her rather large suitcase to the bus stop, except that I had to get to shul. Our regular Wed. night gemara shiur was being sandwiched in between mincha and maariv, so I figured I would show up for the afternoon prayers as well, and, of course, stay through the special Yom Haaztmaut davening for maariv.
When Yom Haaztmaut rolls around every year, I can’t help thinking about how we observed this event back in New Jersey. In Passaic, the minority of Jews who were interested crowded into one of the local shuls for the special evening davening. I joked that a spreadsheet was needed to include what every shul did the next morning. Some had the regular davening, including tachanun, the penitential prayers recited most week days; some had the regular davening but omitted tachanun; a few had some version of the Israeli service – which includes Hallel but without the customary bracha beforehand; there may have been one or two that included the bracha, but I can’t remember.
In Teaneck, as one might expect, there was a lot more enthusiasm for a ceremony in the evening to celebrate the founding of the Jewish State. Standing room only in the largest shul in the area. A reading of the names of all the men and women who had died in the previous year in terror attacks or in war, done by a select group of students from the local Jewish schools. An appropriate Yom Haaztmaut davening. Refreshments to follow.
Our friend Arvin made it a point that somewhere in Teaneck (even in his house) there would be a minyan in the morning that used the standard Rinat Yisrael davening. (The minyan was crack of dawn because we all had to get to work.) I wonder what happened in Teaneck this year now that Arvin and Gila are now olim.
Our new rabbi, Ezra Friedman (someone whom I had first met years before at the barbecues at Rosh Haayin; talk about coincidences) was determined to make this Yom Haaztmaut something special. He was bringing in a hazzan to lead the davening and there would be a breakfast for everyone afterwards. Originally, I wasn’t planning to attend, but a) I was urged to go – just in case there wouldn’t otherwise be an appropriate number of Cohanim for the priestly blessing; and b) I had absolutely nothing planned for the rest of the day, so why not?
And that’s more or less where I began this article. A young man (he looked as if he were about to start his army service) got up to daven shacharit. That couldn’t be the hazzan, but he was. (I understand he is also a rabbi.) He had a fine, well-trained voice, and he knew what he was doing. (Can’t judge a book by its cover!)
As he was singing his way through Hallel, a few of the guys got up to galumph around the shul, pulling more and more of the men with them, leaving a few of us sitting resolutely in our places. Had anybody asked me why I wouldn’t join in, my question to answer the first question would have been, ‘Why?’ As in, what is this all about? If you’re trying to celebrate one of the greatest events in Jewish history, I would describe your response as lackluster. On the other hand, if you’re perfunctorily shuffling around the shul simply because your neighbor grabbed you by the arm and pulled you into the circle, well then…… Personally, I don’t make it a habit to do anything just because somebody says I should; I’m funny that way.
But more to the point: what’s going on anyway? Are we on the verge of a modern miracle, with the vast majority of the world’s Jewish population living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, safe and secure in a country blessed with abundance, the envy of the nations, or will we be drowned in the rising tide of world-wide anti-Semitism, a malady that never dies and comes back when you least expect it? Either way, shuffling your feet to the tunes of Hallel seems to be too much or too little. Plus, it involves holding hands with other guys.