When I first came to the US, I asked a colleague how one behaves on Memorial Day. She looked at me in surprise. “Fire up the barbecue and chill the beer.” Allowing for the disturbing thought of chilling beer (I am a Brit and newly arrived in the US), I was surprised at her response. “What about the memories of soldiers?” I asked. “Yeah,” she said, creasing her brow. “There’s some of that on army bases and at cemeteries, I guess.”
Today, I would like to share how Memorial Day is observed in Israel, where everyone serves in the army and so everyone knows someone who lost their life in uniform. This is an excerpt form my next novel, Unwanted Heroes.
At 11am, a siren is sounded and the whole country comes to a stop.
James sighs. “I served in the marines in Vietnam. Jane knows I was an officer, a decorated officer. There are five medals in a case in my den. My unit was honored by President Johnson and he spent some time visiting us.”
He pauses, staring into a distant past. “Jane knows that while her friends’ families organize barbeques on Memorial Day, her father disappears. She knows that in the days leading up to Memorial Day, he secludes himself in his den when he’s not at the office, and that he doesn’t share jokes or listen very well to his little girl’s stories.
“Maybe she sees him drinking more during this time, though I hope not. Perhaps she sees that her mother is uncharacteristically understanding and supportive, stealing worried glances at her husband, knowing she is powerless to help.”
James stops for a moment and takes a long, contemplative drink and a deep breath before continuing with unconcealed venom.
“I hate Memorial Day. I hate that it’s a national excuse to party. You know, I went on a business trip once to Israel and the middle of the trip coincided with their Memorial Day. Every man serves in the army there and many women too. Everyone has lost somebody. I was being driven from Tel Aviv to Haifa on their equivalent of Highway 5. At exactly eleven in the morning the driver pulled over. My host had forewarned me that this would happen, but I was still astonished at what I saw. We all got out of our cars, I mean everyone. The whole highway stopped; six lanes of traffic. People stood in silence by their cars, heads bowed, as sirens wailed from car radios.”
Now I enjoy a barbecue just like the next non-meat eater, and I have even learned to drink my beer chilled. But can we not find 60 seconds in the day and bring the whole country to a stop: to remember, to reflect, to honor?
Just 60 seconds.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).