Israelis having a barbeque on Independence Day in Jerusalem.
Israelis having a barbeque on Independence Day in Jerusalem. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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I once went hiking with a group of American students in the Jerusalem forest on Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day). As the group, who had been studying in Israel for close to a year, intently and joyously grilled meat, one of them exclaimed in surprise, “Hey, its Sunday!” The student had evidently missed his weekly day of leisure, but what struck me in that moment was the extent to which these young American Jews remained foreigners in their own land.

If you are not part of the ceremonious barbeque culture it is no big deal, but when the feeling of being foreign extends to other significant days in our calendar, it certainly is. It was not until my fourth year here, when I began serving in the Israel Defense Forces, that the military protocol surrounding memorial services began to make sense to me. It was not until I experienced my first (and thank God my only) military funeral that the depth and power of the day began to open up to me. Today I view those moments as the true markers of my arrival in Israel.

The shared expression of sorrow and fortitude on Memorial Day has a unique texture, and is a beautiful encapsulation of the heart of this nation. It is born of shared destiny and shared experience, for who has lived his entire life here and not been personally affected in some way by our pain-filled price. For me, the pinnacle of expression of this joint memory are the countless songs playing on the radio that day, so very sad and yet so dignified and beautiful. Those songs and my deep familiarity with them are also a marker that I have truly arrived.

This season brings a series of these special days, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Jerusalem Day. I would add Lag Ba’omer to the list, despite it being a traditional marker for the Jewish people and not a national holiday, for Israeli culture has adopted it as not only a religious holiday, but as a popular celebration. Its national expression in Israel has evolved in specific ways: childhood memories of chilly night bonfires, foil wrapped potatoes from the fire and empty classrooms the following morning are shared by all, and provide the sweetest backdrop for everyone’s early years.

As a country of immigrants and children of immigrants I wonder why we have not developed a directed approach toward introducing our newest arrivals, and visitors, to these iconic experiences of our cultural identity. In ulpan we teach Hebrew, but when it comes to the deeper language of symbol and experience, olim (new immigrants) can easily remain ever distant. This year, I have chosen, together with my colleagues, to provide English language programs in our community to mark these days. This may seem to run counter to our Zionist ideals, but after observing my new friends over many years I feel we are providing a crucial link in their aliyah process, we are helping them arrive. 

Of course, the true answer to the predicament I describe - the saving grace so to speak - is that it is a problem that persists no more than one generation. Chag Sameach.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.