When I was living in Israel, I was struck by the difference between American Memorial Day and Israeli Memorial Day.
Here at home, it’s largely about BBQs and pool openings — and for me, until the last 10 years or so, it was about an extra day off from school or work. I didn’t really think about the meaning behind Memorial Day, because I was too busy splashing around or eating burgers.
In Israel, however, Memorial Day is steeped in meaning and grief. The day is spent in collective mourning: mourning for those lost in combat and for those killed in terrorist attacks. In a country where military service is compulsory and where terrorist attacks have happened with sickening frequency, everybody knows — and has cared deeply for — someone who died either in combat or in an attack.
All day long, TV programming is dedicated to telling the stories of people who had died. Parents talk about their lost children, siblings tell stories of life before their brothers or sisters died, and throughout the country, the deep sadness, loss, and grief are palpable.
I spent some time watching TV interviews with friends, and I felt gutted by what I saw. I didn’t know any of these people, and I didn’t have any personal connections to anyone who’d been killed in combat or in an attack. And yet, it was impossible not to cry.
The story that left me reeling involved a father who used to love gardening with his beloved daughter. I can’t recall whether she was killed in combat or in a terrorist attack, but I know she was in her late teens or early twenties when she died. Her father buried her on a plot of land near his house and cultivated a huge garden around her grave. He tends to it every day. “This is how we spend time together now,” he said while choking back sobs. “We used to talk while spending time in the garden every day while she was alive. I still talk to her in the garden. I do this every day.”
Peoples’ losses — and the tremendous sense of collective pain — were staggering.
The whole experience made me re-think Memorial Day. For those of us who don’t have many connections to the military, it’s easy to lose sight of what today is all about.
For me, at least, I grew up without much of any military connections. I come from a family of die-hard peacemakers, and we’re a crew full of lawyers, academics, and bookish types. By no means is my family anti-military — my maternal grandfather enlisted with the British Army before the U.S. joined World War II because he felt so strongly about taking a stand against the Third Reich — but just by virtue of my family’s career paths, I grew up without much connection to the military.
I think that, for the majority of people in the States, that’s just how life is. The military community is a world apart from civilian life, and it’s easy to compartmentalize the two.
In Israel, by contrast, that’s physically impossible. With a total population of just under 8 million (as compared to the over 313 million in the U.S.) and a mandate of compulsory military service for all 18-year-olds (versus the volunteer service model in the U.S.), nearly everyone is either active duty, in the reserves, or a veteran. There is no separation between military culture and civilian culture, because they’re inextricably linked.
Israeli Memorial Day made me completely re-think how I go about commemorating the same holiday when Stateside. While I’m never one to turn down a day off or a good BBQ — and although I’m embedded in American civilian culture — I promised myself that I’d make a point of changing my perspective on American Memorial Day.
As it turns out, that became incredibly easy to do once I came home. Through the course of my studies and my career, I’ve become close friends with people who are either on active duty or are veterans. One of my favorite people — who happened to be my roommate while I was living in Jerusalem — is a Medivac helicopter pilot in the Army. Two of the most awesome guys I met during grad school are an Army Colonel and a former Marine. I reconnected with a friend from junior high who’s now married to an Apache pilot.
Although I remain very much a civilian (I mean, really, can anyone imagine me in the military? Me neither.), my life is now entwined with — and immeasurably enriched by — the service and sacrifices of these friends. Knowing that they’ve lost friends of their own, whether in combat or afterwards as a result of PTSD, brings an entirely new level of meaning to Memorial Day.
While it’s admittedly strange that living in a foreign country would completely alter the way I approach Memorial Day, my year in Israel did just that. (Seriously, that year changed me in ways I never anticipated. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.)
So, to those who serve, to those who hold down the fort at home while your spouses are deployed, and especially to those who’ve lost loved ones in the line of duty: thank you.