Commemorative dissonance

Commemorative dissonance

Outsiders often have a hard time absorbing the emotional one-two punch with which Israel marks its birthday.

Yom Ha’atzmaut, or Independence Day, begins at sundown on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar (unless, as it did this year, the celebration might conflict with Shabbat). But the commemorations really begin 24 hours earlier, with the onset of Yom Hazikaron, the national Memorial Day.

As a result, the country does a quick pivot — from perhaps the most solemn day of the year, marked with graveside visits and somber ceremonies, to a national blowout, with concerts, folk dancing, street parties, and fireworks. On Monday morning, Israelis everywhere stood at silent attention while a siren wailed in memory of the country’s war dead. That evening, the streets came alive with revelers waving flags and blowing noisemakers.

Imagine a funeral ending with a flash mob performance of “Celebrate Good Times,” and you get the idea.

You really can’t appreciate it unless you’re there, even if you attend special community or synagogue services that mark both days and the transition between.

Unless. Monday night, I attended two Yom Ha’atzmaut events, after spending the day absorbing the news of the Boston Marathon bombings. By day, I was obsessively checking news sites, eager for and horrified by details of the attack at Copley Square. That night, I celebrated Israel at my synagogue, scarfing falafel and Bamba while my fellow members danced the hora.

That afternoon, I listened to a live feed from WBUR in Boston — a fascinating mix of conjecture and public mourning combined with the slow (by today’s Twitter standards) aggregation of actual news. At 5:20 p.m., the announcer reported that a “person of interest” was under guard at a Boston hospital; at 5:55 p.m., Boston’s mayor was quoted denying any such thing.

I clicked off the radio to join a party for Israeli teens visiting here as guests of my daughter’s Hebrew high school. The kids are spending a week in the New York area. As is typical for this huggiest of all generations, the American and Israeli girls were already fast friends, squealing with delight upon seeing one another (they’d been apart, after all, for almost a day). I love fireworks as much as the next guy, but nothing moves me like the sight of two Jewish kids making a connection across continents.

By the evening, the media were already asking the “too soon?” question. Sporting events were canceled, late-night comedians were awkward and shaken. Boston was in lockdown. I thought not only about how Israel marks its independence, but how the country copes with terrorist attacks. It’s something else outsiders can’t quite grasp. I was living in Jerusalem in 1997 when three suicide bombers killed five Israelis on the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. The attack was wrenching, but the next day, when I walked past the site, the glass had been swept up, the blood mopped. Broken windows were being replaced and many of the businesses were open again.

This might strike some as callous, but it’s yet another pivot that keeps Israelis sane — and defiant. As soon as I heard news of the marathon bombings, I began to dread the changes we’d all have to make in their wake. Increased security at sporting events. Canceled games and performances. Marathons, those glorious, giddy celebrations of endurance and the cities that host them, transformed into fortified nightmares. Beyond the obscene deaths and awful injuries, it enrages me that the perpetrators somehow get to dictate not only how some might die but how the rest of us will live.

The Israeli way says to the terrorists, no — you don’t get to make that decision. They don’t lower their guard — they’re not stupid — but they do rush to get things back to normal. Stores quickly reopen, buses run again. They’ll never forget the ones they lost, but they’ll quickly dedicate themselves to the business of living as — as the song goes — “a free people in our land.”

Perhaps the Israeli way is not as alien as it seems — at least to American Jews. After all, we’re the people who break a glass at the climax of a wedding. We do it to remind us that the Temple was destroyed — a cautionary history lesson meant to temper a joyous occasion. But it works the other way, too: The mazel tovs and the celebration seem even sweeter when we pause to remember sadder times.

American culture isn’t comfortable with this sort of commemorative dissonance. For the most part, we like a clear line between our good times and our bad times. National traumas call for “healing,” not defiance. I suspect that the endless delays in developing Ground Zero have to do with our ambivalence about moving on.

The American Prospect put it well on Monday evening: “[W]e should remember what terrorists’ goal is: quite simply, to terrorize us. To make us live in fear, so that we make our own lives more difficult and unpleasant. When we do so we aren’t merely making the only appropriate response, we’re making a series of choices. And there are always other choices we could make.”

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