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The Jewish Way We Plan on Marking Memorial Day

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On Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, my family lit a yahrtzeit candle to honor Israeli soldiers who died protecting our homeland. At dinner that night, my husband asked our two boys, “Should we light a yahrtzeit candle on [the American] Memorial Day?” They unequivocally answered “yes.”

Yom Hazikaron takes place the day before Israel celebrates its Independence Day. It means “the day of remembrance” and honors the country’s fallen soldiers. For anyone who wants a glimpse into the Israeli psyche, they must experience the observance of Memorial Day. Families gather at cemeteries; towns hold public memorials; and radio and television programming is focused on remembering the women and men who made Independence Day possible.

The most stirring part for me are the two sirens, one in the evening and one the following morning, that bring every activity and every citizen to a complete standstill. My son, who is now a freshman at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, experienced Yom Hazikaron when he was a preschooler and the memory hasn’t faded. We went to a busy intersection in Tel Aviv and when the siren wailed, we watched with humble excitement and awe as traffic abruptly stopped and people schmoozing at the corner café stood up in silence.

This collective grief of an entire country is impossible to recreate outside of it. I send my children to day school—my younger son attends Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy—so at least there’s some programming that acknowledges the significance of the day. But my husband and I are not in school. We’re working parents going about the tedium of our day, so for us, lighting a candle added some solemnity into our otherwise normal weekday.

I felt pride that my children seamlessly wanted to transition a Jewish tradition into an American one. Without prompting, my 11-year-old brought up the ecumenical nature of lighting a yahrtzeit candle (although he didn’t use that particular adjective); the flame can honor all souls. He correctly pointed out that not all soldiers who serve and die in the Israel Defense Forces are Jewish—their ranks also include Christians, Muslims, Druze, and people without religious identification.

Another reason they embraced the custom is the connection my boys feel with the American armed forces. Their grandfather from Bergen County, who frequently spends weekends with us, served in the United States Army in the 1950s. He is proud that he enlisted when he was a teenager and still carries his worn military ID card in his wallet. My boys liked the thought that our act could honor the memory of soldiers he knew.

We’ll soon observe Memorial Day, and I don’t need to tell you about the absence of public grief and honor to our fallen soldiers in the United States. Memorial Day marks the kick-start to summer and Americans like to celebrate with barbecues and pool parties. I’m not immune to the jubilation of a long weekend, but I’m happy to create a new tradition that reminds my family of the significance of the holiday. That burning flame will be our small reminder of the memorial part of the day.


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