The white-haired man walking in front of me put down his briefcase and stood at attention. The soldier at the bus stop across the street removed his overstuffed backpack and stood with his hands in his pockets, staring towards the sky. One of the clerks came out of the health food store and walked to the curb, where he stood saying quietly saying Psalms. Two people who had just entered their parked cars got out and stood next to the open car doors.
The siren blared.
The bus stopped a few feet past the bus stop it had just left. All the traffic stopped—nothing moved. Some drivers got out of their cars and stood in the middle of the street. The light rail halted between stations. At the military cemetery on Har Herzl, Allen reported, everyone stopped in their place; no one continued walking to the grave of their loved one.
On and on the siren blared, for two long minutes. The sound seemed to come from everywhere, enveloping us.
Each of us stood alone in our thoughts, yet united in sorrow.
It was Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror. This year we remember 23,447 dead soldiers and civilian victims of terror. In a country as small as Israel, each one of those who died is known. We know their stories. We know their grieving parents, wives, husbands, children. We remember meeting them on Shabbat or working with them. We remember seeing their names in the newspaper, and reacting, “Oh no!”
Although this is our fourth year here, it is the first time I witnessed everything come to a halt in a public space. In ulpan, the siren sounded during our break time. We stopped chatting, put down our containers of yogurt or bags of Bamba, and stood in silence. In a friend’s kitchen, we put our cups of tea on the counter and stood looking towards the Temple Mount. At home, I pushed my chair away from the computer to stand next to the desk by myself.
Standing on the sidewalk, in the company of strangers, and watching traffic stop carries the experience to a different level. Kanfei Nesharim, four lanes wide, is a busy street, used by eight bus routes. I’m used to seeing it empty of all traffic on Shabbat. The rare car can be heard many blocks away. But to see the usual weekday heavy traffic– all the cars, taxis, buses, motorcycles– come to a stop and sit motionless for two minutes impresses the gravity of the moment on the memory.
23,447. So many killed. Too many.
I thought of the ceremony I had attended the night before, in the Jerusalem forest south of the city. Noam school takes its fifth and sixth graders on a hike the day before Yom Hazikaron. They end at a monument to fallen soldiers where they hold memorial ceremony in the evening. The principal said in his opening remarks that every year the school goes to a different monument, one that is not visited often. This year the ceremony was held at the monument to the soldiers who died in Operation Lulav against Kfar Husan in September 1956. Kfar Husan, at the time on the Jordanian side of the armistice line, had been a base for the fedayeen who carried out terrorist attacks against Israel. Operation Lulav was triggered by a Jordanian attack on an archaeological conference at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, in which four archaeologists were killed and sixteen others wounded. During the action, the IDF destroyed the fedayeen headquarters, killing several of their leaders. Terrorist attacks in the area ceased. But nine members of the IDF were killed.
Most of the memorial ceremony was carried out by the sixth grade boys. They started by lighting flames, one flame in memory of each of Israel’s wars, plus one for victims of terror.
One of the speakers had been a member of the IDF squad which attacked Kfar Husan. He described the action. Six soldiers had been killed because they were too close to the building when it blew up; the fedayeen killed three soldiers. Their names are on the small monument near the clearing where the ceremony took place.
The school rabbi spoke about Shia, his best friend from childhood–how they grew up together, went to Yeshiva together, and were hevrutot (study partners). They enlisted into different units in the army. After the 1973 war, he discovered Shia had been killed. He talked about our duty to remember, not to forget, those who died.
The ceremony was timed so that the 8 PM memorial siren would be heard about halfway through. I noticed the principal checking his watch several times to make sure the siren would not interrupt any of the prayers or poems.
At exactly 8 PM, the siren sounded. I was amazed at how loud it was out here in the middle of nowhere. We heard the sirens from both the city of Beitar to the south and from the town of Tsur Hadassah to the north. Everyone stood in absolute silence. No moved for a moment after the siren ended, until we heard the echoes of sirens from distant towns die away.
This is the second time I’ve attended a memorial ceremony held by the boys’ school. Both times, during the two minutes of silence, my mind drifts from thinking of those who gave their lives to protect the country to the boys in front of me. In a few years, they will all be in the army. I say a small prayer, asking G-d to protect them, and to protect us and the land of Israel.
May we know no more wars