By Rabbi Mark Wildes, with contributions by Michelle Soffen Dedicated to the memory of slain student Second Lieutenant Richard W. Collins III
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS Black Civil War Union Soldiers from the “4th United States Colored Infantry Regiment”
It’s 8:00pm. The world around comes to a sudden halt. Cars break mid highway as phones are put away and conversations paused. A nation unites in complete stillness, and for an entire minute, no sound can be heard for miles but the cry of a siren.
This soul penetrating ring is the official start of Yom Hazikaron – Memorial Day in Israel; the national day of remembrance set aside for honoring fallen heroes who died in active duty defending the Jewish homeland, and for the thousands of civilian victims of terror. Throughout the next 24 hours, graves are visited, ceremonies held, and tears shed. By law, all places of entertainment are closed and tv stations mark the solemnity of the day. One channel screens the entire list of names of all those being remembered.
23,544 – The number of Israeli soldiers remembered this past May 1.
3,117 – The number of victims of terror in Israel also remembered this past May 1.
21 Million – the number of cases of beer purchased to wash down the 818 hot dogsconsumed per second during “peak hot dog season”, kicked off on Memorial Day in the United States just a few weeks later. This is in memory of the 1.3 Million members of the armed services who lost their lives in conflict, and the 42+ Million veterans who have served the United States during war time.
Barbecues, beer, beef, 2 for 1 sales, marathons, auto racing, and travel – this is what Memorial Day looks like for the average American. It is the unofficial start of the summer season, a day for busting out the white pants, and enjoying a day off work.
An Israeli friend of mine visiting the U.S. experienced Memorial Day here for the first time last year. “I was at first horrified,” she explained to me. “I was expecting something similar to what we do in Israel. I couldn’t understand how you are all so happy – drinking, going to the beach, having barbecues, on the day you are remembering the people who sacrificed their lives for you. But then an American friend explained to me that it is not meant to be a solemn day here – that instead of mourning you choose to celebrate the many freedoms the U.S. cherishes; the freedoms that the army fights to protect.”
She paused to think, then continued. “It makes sense; you should of course celebrate your wonderful country – but it could never be this way for us on Memorial Day in Israel. I don’t want you to think I am judging you; for us, it is just different. There is not a single person who is not directly affected by the conflicts we face. We all know someone personally in active duty, and we all know someone either in our immediate circles or extended circles who has died because of the conflict. I think until we have security and peace with our neighbors, it will continue to be an extremely sad day for us.”
My friend’s remarks got me thinking. How did the U.S. Memorial Day become what it is? How did it start? And have we come so far as a country to merit a day of pure celebration marked with little to no solemnity for the average American?