Yom Ha’atzmaut Feature As Israel Mourns and Celebrates, a New Immigrant Looks at the Swings

It’s springtime in Israel, and I’m feeling what I have to call emotional whiplash. Only a week after the concerts and day trips of the Passover holiday, a wailing siren cuts through the morning air, screaming out the memories of the Holocaust dead. My mind ricochets between images of playful splashing in the cool Mediterranean and the sickening thought of Auschwitz’s burning smokestacks.

Just a little more than a week later, it’s Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron. In Israel, Memorial Day is not a day for barbecues, when the white shoes can come out of the closet, but a time for real national mourning. In a country where nearly everyone serves in the army, nearly everyone knows someone who was lost.

Thousands pass through Mount Herzl, the national military cemetery, placing stones or wreaths on graves. Some graves are freshly dug, some have grass growing lushly around them. Television and radio waves are filled with documentaries and stories of our recent battles and of the people we lost along the way.

And suddenly, with the setting of the sun, Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, arrives with a flash of fireworks popping over the night sky. It continues with the family and friends barbecuing together, celebrating this modern-day miracle.

As if these stark emotional transitions were not enough, three weeks later comes a day that caps off the memorials: Jerusalem Day.

A giant parade wraps itself around the entire circumference of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, and then enters into Lion’s Gate, the entrance through which the soldiers who reclaimed the Old City burst.

Because Lion’s Gate is in the heart of the Muslim Quarter, on a normal day a Jew would walk there with either great fear or a loaded weapon. But on this day freedom fills the air as we walk past the Temple Mount and wind though the labyrinth of the Old City, emptying out into the Western Wall plaza. Music fills the air, and memories of dancing with strangers celebrating the gift of Jerusalem still replay in my head.

But as I approach the Western Wall itself, its great white stones loom over me. As I look down, I realize how close I was — how close all Israel is — to our spiritual and historical roots. And then I look up and realize how far we have to go.

The nation is at war with terrorists, as well as with factions of the people themselves. We have Jerusalem, but we also have a nation fractured in so many ways, divided on issues ranging from religion to the future of the state. With so much controversy surrounding the plan to uproot Jews from their homes, how can we find peace within and among ourselves, much less with our neighbors?

These days we go from one emotional pole to the other. They cause such pain and joy because they represent the ongoing unfolding of the Jewish future. The battles we fight and the soldiers for whom we mourn and the nation that we celebrate — are stories that we all live every day.

But it is because we feel such extremes of emotion that we feel them so deeply. The joy and the tears are bound together permanently. Only after I cried the tears of my nation was I able to feel the true excitement of its victories.

These two days, and their emotions, are so close together that they can overlap, and it can be confusing. On top of Angel’s Bakery stand two symbols — the flame of remembrance, for the Holocaust, and right behind it a light display spelling out the number 57, Israel’s age. The two together symbolize the range of emotions to which we are subjected.

The emotion is inescapable; even to a new immigrant like me.

As I jog past Mount Herzl, as I often do, I see the preparations under way for the large crowds that will enter its gates on Memorial Day. I think back to February 2002, the last time I walked through those gates. I was a student at a Jerusalem yeshiva then, and I had been sent with two other students to represent the yeshiva at the funeral of Erez Turgeman, a 20-year-old staff sergeant killed by terrorists at a checkpoint ambush.

I remember scenes from the funeral very distinctly. Erez’s family and friends gave eulogies, speaking to the hundreds of mourners who stood around the grave. The crowd included tear-stained soldiers from his unit; his family, their grief so deep they could barely stand up; and complete strangers, there to grieve and to provide support. Everyone stood united in misery.

The words of Erez’s sister, Dana, 16, still echo in my head: “I had a brother, and now I have an angel,” she said. “But I don’t want an angel. I want my brother.”

The emotions behind her words shook the crowd like an earthquake. I looked down and I felt my heart breaking.

And that pain can only be contrasted with the joy that I felt last Jerusalem Day, as my friend Ken and I marched around the Old City walls. He was snapping pictures as I looked at the yeshiva students and families all dancing down the streets together. I stared at the walls; before 1967 they had been lined with Jordanian soldiers. Now Jewish soldiers sat on the walls, waving down to us, as music blared from a van filled with Chasidim that drove alongside us. It felt like the fulfillment of thousands of years of prayer.

Had it not been for the pain I felt that day at Mount Herzl, then I could not have felt the joy of a reunited Jerusalem so deeply. Only when I truly let the loss of a soldier into my heart could I taste the sweetness of victory, as I savored what so many others had fought and died for.

Jonathan Udren is a freelance journalist and editor from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He made aliyah in 2003 and lives in Jerusalem.

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