Is Grief a Communal or a Personal Affair?

Tensions exist between national observance and private remembrance on Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Memorial Day.

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But some, particularly the families of dead soldiers, found this inadequate and troubling. They felt the respect due their lost ones and their own feelings was being subordinated to the festive atmosphere of Independence Day. They demanded a separate date of national tribute to the fallen. A number of alternate dates were considered--including Lag B'Omer and 11 Adar, each of which recalls an instance of Jewish heroism. (The former commemorates the end of the plague on Rabbi Akiba's students during the ancient revolt against Roman rule, while the latter is the day in 1920 when the Zionist fighter Joseph Trumpeldor, along with seven others, died in the defense of Tel Hai in the northern Galilee.)

The choice of the day before Independence Day was quite "accidental"--following a "separation" of the memorials and the joyous celebrations in 1950 simply because the proper date for Independence Day fell on Shabbat when mourning would be inapprproiate. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was among those who found contiguous dates the best solution and was so adamant about it that the opponents did not pursue the debate. Remembrance Day was not anchored in law until 1963, and there was no official central opening ceremony until after the Six Day War (1967), when it was introduced at the Western Wall.

Present Observances Are Not Accepted By Everyone

In 1980 the Knesset extended Yom Hazikaron to recall all who have fallen in service to the country or as victims of hostile attack; previously the day had been dedicated only to the fallen soldiers of the 1948 War of Independence. While it is not a "full holiday" (schools, shops, and offices are open), it is marked by sirens in the evening and morning--during which silence is observed and no work or traffic allowed--the lowering of flags to half staff, official visits to cemeteries, ceremonies in schools, the closing of places of entertainment and coffee shops in the evening, and programming "appropriate for the mood of the day" on the television and radio.

The evolution of the mode of observance reveals other tensions within the society. The initial symbols--the blowing of the sirens and official visits to cemeteries--were borrowed from post-World War I European memorial practices. Some secular groups even used a new, specially written "Yizkor" prayer (a memorial service like the one recited on Yom Kippur and other religious festivals)--although this Yizkor omitted all references to God and religious ideas. The Zionist ("national") religious community, a minority, added traditional elements to their ceremony--prayers like  El Malei Rahamim (a memorial prayer), Kaddish (the mourner's prayer), and a more traditional Yizkor--and over time the official ceremonies became a synthesis of the secular, universal and the traditional.

The non-Zionist religious community (the ultra-Orthodox, also called haredim) has ignored Remembrance Day just as it ignores Independence Day. Each year, pictures on television and in newspapers show haredim going about "business as usual" when the sirens are sounded, causing anger amongst the rest of the population.

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Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb

Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, director of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, is a graduate of Harvard College, Columbia Law School, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He has lived in Israel since 1976, where he worked as lawyer for the government and then in private practice. He joined the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem in 2000 and teaches Jewish liturgy there.