Memorial days

Not all Memorial Days are the same.

In a few weeks, this country will be marking Memorial Day, which should be a solemn occasion for all of us, but is not. It means a lot to those who are veterans and especially to vets who lost buddies in war. And it means a lot to the families of fallen American soldiers.

But for the vast majority of Americans, it means the start of summer and so contemplating vacation or the end of school, it means a day off from work or school and it means barbecuing.

The meaning of the holiday, the solemnity of the day, is pretty much lost on most of us. It’s all about getting the burgers and hot dogs and charcoal and getting to stay up late Sunday night and sleep in late Monday morning.

That is not how it is in Israel. Not at all. Everyone, and I mean everyone, takes Memorial Day, known as Yom Hazikaron, very seriously and very personally. Barbecues are the farthest thing from peoples’ minds. Indeed, all restaurants throughout the country are closed on the eve of Yom Hazikaron, as are all places of entertainment. All regular TV shows are cancelled. Instead, TV screens on all the stations are filled with the names and ranks of every killed soldier, for 24 hours, each flashed on the screen for several seconds.

The night before Yom Hazikaron, a siren is sounded throughout the country and everyone stands up and doesn’t move, in silent tribute.

Think of how Americans have given their lives in battle to protect the freedoms we all enjoy. How many American soldiers died in World War I and World War II and the Korean War and the Vietnam War and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And yet there is no siren sounding in the cities and towns of America, nobody stopping and standing in silence, contemplating those who gave everything for the rest of us.

I have found reason to criticize things about Israel, because that is the job of a journalist, and that has nothing to do with being an enemy of the Jewish people, to paraphrase the sick words of The Donald, or the sick thoughts of too many Jews. But there are some truly wonderful beautiful things about Israel, some very Jewish things about Israel and Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron, is one of them.

I’ll tell you just how seriously every person in Israel takes the day. As I say, the evening before the day, all restaurants must close before sunset. That’s the law. As it happens, there is a restaurant in Jerusalem, where I am very friendly with several of the people who work there. Every time I come in, we joke around, laugh, give each other warm greetings. And for reasons I have yet to figure out, and that would shock the hell out of my teachers at day school and yeshiva, they refer to me as ‘Reb Yosef,’ or ‘The Rabbi.’

Anyway, it was about 20 minutes or so before sunset and so I ran into the restaurant to see if I could order a salad. My buddies in the place not only said no, but seemed very upset, indeed kind of angry that I was even asking. I could see by the expressions on their faces that said ‘does this stupid American not realize we are about to begin the commemoration of Yom Hazikaron and he wants to order a salad.’ Indeed, one of the waiters, with whom I have a very good rapport, actually took me by the shoulders and said, “goodbye, it’s time to go.”

Now these are young men, age 25 or so. And yet you could see how seriously and deeply they took Yom Hazikaron.

There are many ways I wish Israel was more like the United States. But in understanding what Memorial Day means and how we should treat it, I wish the United States was more like Israel.

In all the back and forth of political discussion, all the arguing about the peace process and the settlements and the Iran deal and all the rest of it, it is important, even if for only one day a year, to focus on some numbers.

Numbers like the 23,544 men and women who have died defending the State of Israel and its pre-state Jewish population since the start of the Zionist movement in 1860. Numbers like the 3,117 terror victims who have been killed in the same time period.

In a Memorial Day eve service at the Western Wall, President Reuven Rivlin and the widow of Haggai Ben-Ari, who succumbed in January to his injuries sustained during the 2014 Gaza war, lit the memorial torch. He had been in a coma for 2 1/2 years and died at 31. His widow was flanked by two of her three young children.

“By this wall of tears and of hopes, this evening, 50 years after the liberation of Jerusalem, we remember: our liberty is sacred, both sacred and hard. We know that there is a price to be paid for our existence here, for our liberty. There is a price, and we, in awe and terror, are willing to pay that price,” Rivlin said.

Numbers like the fact that today in Israel there 9,157 bereaved parents, 4,881 widows, and 1,843 orphans under the age of 30 of killed Israeli soldiers and security officers.

We are Jews who live in the United States, but we should also feel ourselves bereaved, should mourn the deaths of the 23,544 men and women who have died defending Israel, because they died defending us, defending the Jewish homeland, of which we are all a part whether we live there or not.

There are some other numbers, closer to home, I have been thinking about in recent days. Two. 69. 40.

A Chicago Jewish couple who were married for 69 years died 40 minutes apart in the same hospital room while holding hands.

Teresa Vatkin, 89, died at 12:10 a.m. at Highland Park Hospital, and her husband, Isaac, died at 12:50 a.m. as they wheeled his wife from the room and their hands separated.

Teresa Vatkin had been suffering from dementia for the past decade. Isaac was her caregiver, staying by her side even when she entered a memory care facility. “The moment he felt we removed her hand from his, he was able to say ‘OK, I’m done protecting her. I can go and rest as well,’” their son, Daniel, told the Chicago Sun-Times. “The ultimate in chivalry — so he could go to heaven and open the door for her.”

“I saw it with my own eyes,” their daughter, Clara Gesklin, told the newspaper. “All of a sudden, when their fingers separated, he just stopped breathing.”

Isaac Vatkin had been admitted to the hospital with influenza and his wife with pneumonia. They were moved to the same room when both were breathing shallowly and were unresponsive.

The couple grew up in Argentina, on opposite ends of the country, and wrote love letters to each other three times a week until they married in 1947. The Vatkins moved to Chicago in 1968, where Isaac worked as a kosher butcher and invested in apartments.

What an amazing, indeed breathtaking story. Talk about true love.

In Israel, the story of Memorial Day is the story of love of country, love of land, love of G-d, love of the Jewish people. Those 23,544 men and women who gave their lives in the defense of Israel are not just numbers, must never be allowed to be thought of as just numbers. Each and every one of them was a human being. Each and every one chose to fight to defend Israel, fight so that a Jewish state could be established after 2,000 years, fought so that a Jewish state could become more vibrant and amazing for 69 years now, and counting.

There is plenty to complain about in regard to Israel. For starters, the stunning amount of political corruption. And the stunning lack of consumer protections. And two stories just this week showed how far from democratic ideals the country can be, how foolish those in power too often act.

Don’t worry, I won’t go on too long but I feel the need to mention two outrageous occurrences. One is that Prime Minister Netanyahu insulted the visiting foreign minister of Germany by refusing to meet with him. Now, Germany is one of Israel’s best friends, a major supplier of military equipment and diplomatic support to the Jewish state. So what was the foreign minister’s great sin in Netanyahu’s eyes? That he had a meeting with some Jews – yes Jews, who belong to a left wing group known as Breaking the Silence, which is made up of Israeli army veterans who allege the Israeli army abuses Palestinians.

If you meet with those Jews, those army veterans, Netanyahu told the foreign minister of Germany, then no meeting with me. The foreign minister responded saying that it would be “inconceivable” for a German minister to cancel a meeting with an Israeli official over a meeting with individuals critical of the German government.

And then we had the firing of the founding and longtime editor of Israel’s best-selling daily newspaper. A newspaper owned by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, one of The Donald’s and The Bibi’s best friends. And what was the editor’s great sin in Adelson’s eyes? He had allowed some of his reporters to write stories critical of Netanyahu. How do you say free press, freedom of speech in Hebrew? Evidently, you don’t. And who did Sheldon name as the new editor? A guy who is the only Israeli reporter to interview Trump in the Oval Office.

Look, I know some of you are wondering why after starting out so nice and Zionistic, so praising of what Israel is all about, did I have to go and ruin it with shots at Netanyahu and Adelson, shots at the state of democracy in the Jewish state.

I’ll tell you why. Because those 23,544 men and women who gave their lives fighting for Israel were fighting for an ideal, fighting for what Israel is supposed to be, for the values that are its foundation. And so it makes me very angry when those elected to lead the state, to strengthen those values, when those with great power in the state, fall short, do not act as they should, do things that undermine the values that make Israel Israel.

As we remember the 23,544 who died for Israel, we must always remember what it is they were fighting for, what they died for.

May the memories of the 23,544 and the memories of Isaac and Teresa Vatkin be for blessing.

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