There is one event in the Jewish calendar year in Toronto where you are sure to find more Israeli Canadians than native Canadians in attendance. That is Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, which honours all of the Jewish state’s fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism.
While it is not a religious holiday, this day is one the holiest days in the Israeli calendar and is deeply ingrained in modern Israeli society and the Israeli psyche. This is the one day when we are all united as one family in deep grief, memories and thoughts, sharing our collective existential destiny.
The intense passion that Israelis have in remembering those who have paid the ultimate price for the continued existence of the Jewish homeland exists both in Israel and in the Diaspora. This is a nation where most people have served in the army, where many have friends and family members – fathers, sons and brothers – who never came back from the battlefield, and where there are dozens of songs and poems dedicated to the fallen. This is the one day when all the conflicts, politics, debates and disagreements that so uniquely characterize Israeli society take a back seat.
In 1951, the fourth of the Hebrew month of Iyar was declared by the Israeli Knesset as Yom Hazikaron. It is always one day before Israel’s Independence Day, so that when we celebrate our independence, we do not forget our debt to those who are no longer with us and to whom we owe our country and our independence. This year, we will remember 23,137 fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism who lost their lives since 1860, the year when Jews were first allowed to live in Palestine outside of Jerusalem’s Old City walls.
Yom Hazikaron in Israel has always been unique, as it is a day when all public and entertainment venues are closed. There are two sirens sounded, during which everybody observes a two-minute halt of all traffic and daily activities. And all of Israel’s radio and television stations broadcast, throughout the day, programs about the lives and heroic acts of fallen soldiers, along with Israeli songs.
Growing up in Israel, some Yom Hazikaron rituals became part of our identity. For years, we read Nathan Alterman’s poem, written during the 1948 War of Independence, Magash Hakesef (The Silver Platter), at every Yom Hazikaron ceremony. And almost every Israeli remembers the memorial corner in their school that was filled with pictures of school graduates who fell in one of Israel’s wars. Some schools invite the families of the fallen graduates to participate in their ceremonies. School children dress in blue and white, while thousands of soldiers in uniform make their way to military cemeteries across the country.
The unique atmosphere of this day that Israelis are used to explains why many feel out of place on Yom Hazikaron when they are outside Israel. As I mourn my personal loss, like so many others, I have a wish that I know I share with many Israeli Canadians, a wish that the warm Jewish community of Toronto will come out in large numbers and share with us our sorrow on this special day.
Israeli Canadians and Canadian Jews have learned, over the years, to recognize the cultural differences between them and have made considerable efforts to learn about each other’s unique manifestations of Jewish life, and to build bridges. Yom Hazikaron represents one of those unique Israeli existential experiences and, therefore, presents an opportunity for Canadian Jews to add one more building block to the bridge by taking part in it.
We hope to see you at the Yom Hazikaron ceremony this year. It would mean so much to us if you join us.
Sara Dobner is a member of the board of directors at Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, and chair of the Israeli Identity Program, Hamifgash Program at the Schwartz/Reisman Centre. Toronto’s official Yom Hazikaron ceremony will be held on April 21 at 7:30 p.m. at Beth Tzedec Congregation. The program is in both Hebrew and English. A program with Israeli songs will follow after the ceremony.