Faking It When the Siren Sounds

When I saw my 5-year-old son standing at attention, his hands ramrod straight at his sides and his head slightly bowed, I was shocked.

When I saw my 5-year-old son standing at attention, his hands ramrod straight at his sides and his head slightly bowed, I was shocked. It was two years ago, and only then did I understand for the first time how to stand when the memorial day siren sounds. I also understood that much as he is my child, the fruit of my education, he is also a product of the Israeli education industry. At his tender age he has already absorbed the deeper rules and orders of Israeliness that I will never know.

Perhaps because I was educated in the ultra-Orthodox Beit Ya'akov system, and have lived for years now in secular Zionist society, I am not at peace, to put it mildly, with the siren as a sign of mourning. Similarly, I have not gotten used to the Memorial Day and Independence Day ceremonies. Neither to the flowers, nor to the gun-volley salutes, nor to the fly-overs, nor to "the audience will stand at attention for the singing of 'Hatikva.'" The torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl does not speak to me, either.

During Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day for Israel's Fallen, I drown in tears at the stories of the survivors and the television programs about the bereaved. But only my household knows how I fake it when the siren sounds. I am revolted by the scream that rolls from one end of the country to the other. For years I have tried not to be caught outside when the sirens roar. But when I do, I find myself, instead of concentrating on looking inward, looking around, wondering how in a society where individualism reigns, not to mention an impatient society, this works. How does everyone stand at attention as one person? Something in me rebels against the collective commandment to remember at one given moment, and the next moment the world goes back to normal.

For years the media has photographed the ultra-Orthodox who do not stand at attention during the siren, and used those photographs to goad them. They are accused of contempt for the fallen and disrespect for the memory of those thanks to whom we live here in Israel. Defiance with regard to a matter as sensitive as the memory of the fallen is problematic. But perhaps the roots of this behavior should be explained. In the ultra-Orthodox school where I went, they taught that the siren is a "non-Jewish custom." There is no value to short-term commemoration, we were told. We should remember all year, all our lives. In other words, the objection is mainly to this particular mourning custom, not to the memory of the fallen.

Nevertheless, the objection to the signal of collective mourning has caused the ultra-Orthodox to become foreign and psychologically distant, and has created the differentiation in which the ultra-Orthodox leaders strived to prevent assimilation into Israeliness and secularness. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is less politically and societally charged, the argument that "we must remember all year" is logical. If we stood, heads bowed, would we have fulfilled our obligation? If Holocaust survivors suffer poverty year-round, the siren on Holocaust Remembrance Day is a mockery.

In an age of alternative ceremonies on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day for the Fallen, when bereaved parents are fighting with the army over the way their children are commemorated, when the naqba is a concept that is coming up and being discussed, and there is debate over ways of commemoration - it may be understood that standing at attention during the siren is not a value in itself, and one should not be shocked that there are those who do not do so.