Exactly a year ago, I was sitting with friends in Atlanta, Georgia, and telling them why, in Israel, stores and shopping malls don’t have Memorial Day sales.
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I tried to explain to them how, unlike in America, Memorial Day is filled with such deep sorrow that it’s not a day for shopping trips or picnics in the park. I told them how every Memorial Day, my mother rides her bicycle from our house to the cemetery for fallen soldiers in Kfar Sava to visit the graves of two of her high school friends who never lived to be 21. She’s been making that trip every year for over 40 years.
I tried to explain to my friends in Atlanta about the minute of silence on Memorial Day eve, and the two minutes the next morning, during which the whole country stands still. They refuse to believe that an entire country completely freezes for a moment of remembrance − they try to imagine the sight, and to them it sounds like a scene from a movie.
I tried to explain to them how in just one moment as Memorial Day ends, like the moment that ends Shabbat and begins the new week, we transition from mourning to the happiest day of the year. We emerge from our great sadness, and while giving thanks to those who made it possible for us to be here, we begin Independence Day, and fireworks light up our beloved country.
I tried to explain how our great joy, a joy that doesn’t know left or right, rich or poor, native-born citizens or new immigrants, is about one thing − celebrating the fact that we are here. We are here in this crazy country of ours, where there’s always breaking news, where everything is tense and seems to be always teetering on the edge, but also where we have everything, old and new: Just a 15-minute drive away from the spot which housed the First Temple, built to praise God, where the Western Wall now stands, someone is filming the Big Brother reality TV show, complete with celebrity contestants.
We have sacred and secular here: We have old and new, Hebrew and Arabic, Russian and Amharic, Moroccan and Yemenite and more. In this country we live and celebrate independence, and democracy. We celebrate with old-fashioned sing-a-longs on kibbutzim, and trance parties in the desert. Happiness floods this country of ours, which after all is barely a dot on the world map, but makes a great deal of noise − as only we know how. Every Independence Day in Israel, throughout the country, everyone takes to the streets for celebrations that could hold their own against those of any country in the world.
I miss the days when I would go with my parents and siblings to the main square in Kfar Sava to join in the celebration. To my regret, but also to my great joy, I’ve been a performing musician from the age of 12 and since then, I’ve only experienced Independence Day from the other side − up on the big stage, facing a sea of people, tens of thousands in every city. In those huge crowds there are native Israelis together with new immigrants from every corner of the world.
Big crowds weren’t something one used to see very often in the Middle East − not until the past two years.
On this Independence Day, I think about the people who have taken to the streets recently: in our country, in Egypt, in Syria, and many others. Millions of people who want not only to survive today, but to dream about what is possible tomorrow. People who are looking for new meaning in their independence, or trying to return independence to its original meaning.
Independence, and great hope.
Idan Raichel is a well-known Israeli musician. His new album “Quarter to Six” contains songs played with artists from all over the world. In June, he will launch the new album with a series of concerts in Caesarea.