Mourning and Celebrating Alone, in New York

Perhaps here in New York, unlike previous years in Tel Aviv, I will have the space to hurt on Memorial Day, and rejoice over Israel's existence, without someone checking to see if I'm doing so at the prescribed volume.

vered kellner
Vered Kellner
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Salute to Israel Parade in New York, on May 23, 2010.
Salute to Israel Parade in New York, on May 23, 2010. Credit: AP
vered kellner
Vered Kellner

The signs for Israel's Independence Day are already decorating New York's Broadway thoroughfare from Columbus Circle and up to the Upper West Side. At every synagogue, next to the basket of kippot, is a stack of color pamphlets that promise to provide the neighborhood's Jews a variegated taste of the Israeli experience: Take a class in krav maga (Israeli martial arts), spice things up with a little Etgar Keret and Orly Castel-Bloom, and have some falafel for dessert. Happy Independence Day. It will be a pretty happy one in New York, if only for the simple reason that there won't be traffic jams, or any need for us to figure out who to drop in on for the barbecue. We won't put on weight, nor will we need to suffer from the tiresome holiday commandment to be happy.

This week, for the first time, I will be looking at these springtime national holidays from the other side of the ocean, without public sirens, the president's holiday wishes or the national Bible Quiz competition. I am trying to find within myself any sense of discomfort or guilty feelings about this, but I'm coming up empty. To the contrary, I was reminded this week of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry's ad campaign from two years ago to bring back Israeli émigrés. The campaign consisted of a slew of manipulative video clips that assaulted Israeli emigrants with the delicacy and elegance of a prehistoric mammoth, armed with the alleged bitter truth that these émigrés are detached people, torn from their homes and strangers in their current environments, where no-one can understand them like the Immigrant Absorption Ministry understands them.

The most repulsive video clip depicts a couple, an Israeli woman and American man, who return home during the evening to their New York apartment. A yarzheit candle is lit on the table, melancholy music plays in the background and the Israeli girl with a sad face is glued to a computer screen displaying a flashing banner image with the word "Yizkor", the name for Jewish memorial prayer for the dead. Yet her partner completely misinterprets these signs of mourning, which every Israeli immediately associates with Israel's Memorial Day, in a distorted manner. He thinks it's romantic foreplay.

This video clip outraged me even when I saw it in Israel. For starters, I have no tolerance for emotional blackmail, even if it's not directed toward me. But more than that, what really triggered a physical reaction in me was the subtext that there isn't any greater intimacy than that between an Israeli and his/her bereavement. The kitschy nostalgia of our boys in uniform in a group hug, biting their lips so neither the camera nor their friends will notice the trembling, with a soundtrack featuring Yehoram Gaon singing a ballad in a particularly pompous rendition. The very political choice to remove this day from its political context, and to mourn and to become engrossed in sentimentality, like George Costanza draped in velvet. How is it remotely possible to feel something amid this bathtub full of worn-out images? How is it possible to mourn without choking in this group embrace? How can one celebrate tomorrow's Indepen
dence Day without feeling dirty?

There is an old caricature from Haaretz's Literature Supplement on our fridge in Tel Aviv. In the image, drawn by Eran Wolkowski, a Tel Avivian family with one or two kids surrenders to the dictates of the calendar and hangs an Israeli flag on their balcony to celebrate Independence Day. "So we aren't post-Zionists anymore?" asks the mother at the bottom of the caricature. Every year, when the children returned from pre-school with Israeli flags and asked to hang them in our home's window, I glanced at this caricature and I blushed at the cliché that I am: I hang the flag and I also badger my kids about the problematic nature of national symbols.

But in New York we don't have a flag. And even if we did, nobody but the exhibitionist neighbor looking through their window opposite us would see it. Perhaps that is why this year I will be able to mark Memorial Day and Independence Day, alone. Here of all places, where the silhouette of a rifle shadows the debate over the Second Amendment to the Constitution and not the candle symbol of Yizkor, it is possible. Here, in contrast, when I turn on the radio on Monday I will listen to another debate over national budget cuts and not to "Mah Evarekh", “What shall I bless”, a song that features repeatedly in every Memorial Day playlist. Perhaps here I will have the space to hurt on Memorial Day and rejoice over Israel's existence, without someone checking to see if I'm doing so at the prescribed volume.

On previous Independence Days I would meticulously observe a single holiday tradition. At the end of Independence Day when people are belching after their last serving of shish kabobs, I would sit down to watch the Israel Prize awards ceremony to see the twenty Israelis who have left their mark on the arts, sciences or Israeli society receive the state's highest mark of recognition. With my fingernails, I would grip on to the achievements of this rare corner of sanity. It reminded me that there is still something to love.

This year I will need to get by without this strange ceremony. That's why I am already preparing for myself a list of Israel's more praiseworthy aspects several days in advance. I am trying to make clear to myself if I can get along without her. What do I lack there, and what do I lack here. What makes me homesick, from yellow nectarines rich with flavor, to Israeli singers Rona Kenan and Assaf Amdursky, the benches on Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Boulevard between Passover and Shavuot, free education, accessible and pliant Hebrew, family and friends. And not least - a public health system. It might be a less sexy topic than Assaf Amdursky, and less refreshing than summer fruits, but my initial acquaintance with the U.S. medical system and its eagerness to slap you with a $1100 fee for putting on a Band-Aid has renewed my faith in Israel’s health fund system despite its creakiness and imperfections.

Vered Kellner has worked as a journalist in Israel for 17 years. She recently moved with her family from Tel Aviv to New York. Follow her on Twitter at @veredkl

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