On Root / On Memory and Death, Sacrifice and Joy, and UFOs

Jeremy Benstein
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To find out what Israel's Independence Day has in common with UFOs, read this article.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Jeremy Benstein

While fall in Israel has its intense period of Jewish religious holidays, springtime here has a parallel, civic season. And we are now in the thick of it.

After last week's commemoration of victims of the Holocaust, today marks another somber commemoration. Called simply Yom Hazikaron, "Memorial Day," its full name is "Day of Remembrance for Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism," memorializing all those going back to 1860 who have died for Israel's struggle for existence.

This solemn day is immediately followed by the raucous celebrations of Independence Day itself, Yom Ha'atzmaut.

The instant transition from mourning to merriment can seem jarring, but the connections between independence ('atzmaut), and memory (zikaron), are key to understanding Israeliness, as it were, from A to Z, or from 'ayin to zayin.

Indie holiday

The root of 'atzmaut, "independence," is 'ayin-tz-m. The simplest noun form of this root is 'etzem, which means both "bone" and "object." Very different words – but their meanings come together in the idea of independence.

The hardness of bone leads us to 'otzmah - "strength" or "power". This root also gives us terms like ha'atzamah, "empowerment," and ma'atzamah, "superpower."

The more general meaning, of 'etzem is "object". For instance, the acronym 'abam is short for 'eztem bilti-mezuheh, "an object, non-identified," in short - a UFO.

More specifically, an object is a separate entity, a "self." A famous example of this use is Hillel's classic dictum: im ein ani li, mi li?, Uchsheani le'atzmi, mah ani? "If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?"

In the felicitous coinage of Itamar Ben Avi, journalist and son of the great reviver of spoken Hebrew, Eliezer Ben Yehudah, 'atzmaut, "independence," conveys well both the selfhood and empowerment of sovereign liberty.

The root also brings us the acronym 'abam, which is short for 'eztem bilti-mezuheh - "an object, non-identified." Or, in short - a UFO.

Roots of memory and death

Preceding the empowerment of independence is the power of memory. The root of the Hebrew word for "memory" is z-ch-r (where the softer "ch" sound becomes a hard "k" at the beginning of a syllable).

Words based on this root fall into two groups: those related to death, and everything else.

For instance, a memorial service held at graveside is an azkarah. The name of the prayers said several times a year in memory of the departed is yizkor – which means "He will remember," referring to divine consideration.

Referring to a person who is deceased, one can add the acronym "zal", zichrono livrachah, "may his memory be for a blessing". And the rabbinic sages of Talmudic times are collectively known as Cha-zal, short for chachamim ("wise"), zichronam (memories, pl.) livrachah – wise men of blessed memory.

The general noun zikaron unites the different nuances of the English terms "memorial," "remembrance," and also "memory" - what one remembers, and how.
If you had a zikaron fenominali, Hebrew for "phenomenal memory," you'd probably have a vast store of zichronot, "memories." You may still buy a mazkeret or two ("souvenir") when traveling, but in general you wouldn't need any tizkoret, "reminder" or anyone lehazkir, "to remind" you of anything.

Lehazkir also just means "to mention." A person who might do that as part of their job is the mazkir, secretary, for instance, by writing a zichron devarim - a "memorandum."

"Memory" is the very subjective and collectively transmitted narrative of identity, according to historian Yosef Yerushalmi in his 1982 classic, Zakhor (imperative: "Remember!"). It is even more important than history in Jewish culture, Yerushalmi avers.

We mention, and therefore remember, many things over the holidays this season. Some are remembered, some passively forgotten, and some actively censored or censured. What we choose to include or exclude shapes our "selves" and our culture.

Thus arose the organization Zochrot ("those who remember", using the feminine form of the verb). It memorializes and publicizes Palestinian towns and villages no longer on Israeli maps, that have been forgotten or removed from the official Israeli consciousness.

And thus Independence Day follows Memorial Day, which is a week after Holocaust Remembrance Day: sacrifice and loss, memory and strength come together in the space of a single week, shaping our uniquely Israeli collective identity.

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