Sunday, April 14, 2013

Yom HaZikaron

This past Friday, a picture of my mother-in-law appeared in the front inside page of the daily newspaper, Yediot Achronot. In the picture, snapped several days ago, she is shown wearing casual work clothes and latex gloves, bending over a grave whose headstone is clearly visible in the shot. At her side is a blue scrubbing brush.

My mother-in-law had not wanted the picture to be published. An incredibly private person, the capture and distribution of this highly personal moment is quite possibly the last thing I would expect my mother-in-law to approve of. But when she asked the photographer to please delete the photo for which she had not willingly posed, he refused. His assignment had been to capture just such a shot, the cemetery was quiet that day, and this was the only appropriate picture he had managed to take. After several minutes, she finally acquiesced.

The caption under the photo reads: "Mother of combat soldier Hillel Rosner (Z"L)*, who fell in Lebanon, tidies his grave in advance of Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day)"

*(Z"L is an acronym for the expression "May his memory be a blessing")

My husband's oldest brother, Hillel, was killed in action in Lebanon in 1995. He was nineteen years old.

Yesterday, during a leisurely Saturday afternoon walk, I laughingly remarked to my husband that Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) is just about the only time I'm not afflicted with FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). I couldn't possibly be any closer to the center of things than I am once a year on this particular day.

Tomorrow morning, I will join the tens of thousands of people streaming into the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery. At the entrance, youths in khaki shorts with green bandanas tied around their necks will offer us flowers. No one in our family ever takes any, except for my husband's grandmother, who will place them not on her grandson's grave, but in the vase on her coffee table in Jerusalem. Despite the shade trees, it will inevitably be scorching hot, and packed between thousands of other mourners, I will sweat through my light clothing. My husband and the other male members of his family will stand to the side, apart. Their status as Kohanim prevents them from approaching the grave of their brother and son. I will stand next to the grave of the brother I will never meet, next to his mother, his sister, his grandmother, his aunt, his friends. We will chat, catch up, talk about anything else. And then at 11:00 exactly, we will stop in mid-sentence as the wailing of the siren reminds us that there is a time for silence. My sister-in-law will hand me a tissue (she is always prepared), and I will wipe my face awkwardly under my dark sunglasses, holding my elbows close to my body to hide the wet marks under my arms, as over the loudspeaker the Chazzan chants the El Maleh Rachamim, and the Yizkor prayer for the dead.

This year, like every other, I will feel like an intruder, standing next to those who were closest to Hillel, and whose loss of a loved one entitles them to a legitimate grief which I hope I will never earn. Long ago I was told that every Israeli has "Their Soldier" whose death shapes the link between private and national grief, makes the day personal, relateable. Hillel is "My Soldier", but I did not lose him. I was nine years old and six thousand miles away when he was killed. Tomorrow, Hillel's death becomes public property, part of a larger picture, blurred into a complex culture of nationalism, collective memory, and sacrifice.

For my husband and his family, 18 years now after Hillel was killed, private and real grief is reserved not for Yom HaZikaron, but for the anniversary of his death, later in the summer.

After the ceremony, we will make our way back to my in-laws' house. Over the next few hours, the house will fill with friends and family. I will hide in the kitchen and try to make myself useful by preparing food for the guests. The same food is served every year, and once again I will stuff what feels like a hundred pitas with hummus, turkey breast, and pickles. My in-laws and my husband's older brother will sit in the living room, while my husband and his younger sister each retreat to their own childhood bedrooms, in an unintentional mimicry of the week they sat Shiva for Hillel. Their friends will join them in the rooms, sitting awkwardly on chairs and beds, filling the small spaces with their now adult bodies.

As the day wears on, the house will gradually empty. After the last guests have gone, exhausted, we will lie down sleep for an hour or hopefully two. I will wake up as evening sets in, and Yom HaAtzmaut will begin.

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