Monday, May 02, 2011

Yom Hashoa

When I was 16, I traveled to Israel on a youth program through the Jewish Federation. As part of the trip, we toured Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. I remember being traumatized by the experience. For days I was extremely upset and could not get over the magnitude of the tragedy, and oddly, I felt guilty for not being even more upset.

Years later, as an adult with a wife and a child, I visited Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam. The famous hiding place was converted to a museum. Once again I was haunted by the images and the story. I had nightmares for weeks. More recently, I visited the Holocaust museum in Washington DC, and I marveled at the human capacity for evil, beyond what a rational person could fathom.

For the last couple of weeks, preparation for the upcoming independence day festivities have been in full swing. Israeli flags are everywhere, hanging from rooftops, on cars, on buses, and on street corners. There is excitement in the air! But today, the city takes a break from joy to commemorate those who were killed by the nazis. As Yom Hashoa (Holocaust remembrance day) approached in Israel, the weight of the moment was tangible. The evening before restaurants and shops closed, and the children prepared for a memorial service at school. Experiencing Holocaust Day amid the backdrop of the Independence Day preparations provides an interesting mix of patriotism, excitement and gravity.

This morning, I woke up thinking about the Holocaust and about the seriousness of the day. As is my custom here each morning, I walked to the gym, but as I should have guessed, it was closed for Yom Hashoa. So, I decided to take my bike for a ride along the beach. I would get some exercise and reflect about Yom Hashoa and being in Israel among so many people who were personally touched by the Holocaust. As I was ready to leave home, I looked on my cell phone and saw a breaking news alert. Osama Bin Laden was killed by US forces. Osama Bin Laden was killed by US forces. I had to read it twice to believe it. I checked that the date was not April 1, and I quickly yelled to Ann to inform her of the startling news.

My first reaction to the death of the most evil human being on the planet was excitement and joy. I felt a pang of guilt at rejoicing over someone's death, but I quickly got over that. I felt it was appropriate that on the day that we mourn and remember our lost souls from the Holocaust, that we can take comfort in the justice that was served to Bin Laden today. Yes, today is somber, but the news about the extinction of the leader of Al Qaida definitely eases the pain.

I rode my bike along the tayelet, the boardwalk that stretches for 11 kilometers and links Tel Baruch beach with Yaffo. I rode through the Yarkon park and then down to Yaffo. On my way back, I noticed that it was about 9:30 a.m. and I had been riding for two hours. I had heard that at 10 a.m., sirens rang in Israel, and that everybody came to a halt and observed a minute of silence and remembrance. I thought about the best place to see and observe this, and decided to time my return ride so that I would be at a busy intersection in Tel Aviv. I arrived at the intersection of Derech Namir and Keren Kayement Leyisrael a few minutes before 10 and parked my bike. I sat on the street corner at a bus stop and waited.

I was not sure what to expect, and when my watch read 10:00 a.m. and nothing happened, I began to suspect that I had been mis-informed. Traffic was crazy. Cars weaving in and out and honking at each other, buses all around, motorcycles everywhere buzzing past me. Pedestrians crossing at the intersection. A typical Tel Aviv morning. And suddenly, there it was. A deep crescendo, and the sirens were wailing everywhere. What followed was like a scene out of a movie or a dream. I can't describe it any other way. As though on cue, everything froze. All of the cars stopped in their tracks, and all of the passengers stepped out. Every bike, motorcycle and pedestrian froze as well. It looked as though someone had paused the DVR of life.

One of the cars that was close to me was driven by an elderly man, I am guessing in his 80s. He stood next to his car with his head slightly tilted. He looked like he was crying. I examined the faces of the people on the road. Young, old, middle aged. Male, female. Suits, shorts, sandals, long hair, short hair; religious, secular. Every type of person was represented. And they all just stood there and stared straight ahead looking somber. I stood there and felt that my legs were shaking. It was the most religious experience I have ever felt. Almost 70 years had passed, and in this country, for one minute, I could feel the weight of the tragedy in a manner that I did not experience as a teenager at Yad Vashem nor at the Holocaust museum. A minute where the world stands still and everybody remembers.

And then, as though God pressed Play again on the DVR, everything was back to normal. Drivers jumped into their cars and tried to beat out the car in front of them, motorcycles revved up, pedestrians crossed the street, buses came and went. I stayed in my spot and observed life in Tel Aviv. So vibrant. Did that moment of silence really just happen? It was so fleeting. The longer I stood there the more incredible it seemed. And then I felt a strong emotional connection with life. The joke was on you, Hitler. The Jews not only survived. We thrived. Look at this city. Look at all these people. There are children playing in the parks, babies being born, buildings sprouting up left and right. Hitler, you were a complete failure. A joke. I spit on the ground to curse your memory, and I laugh out loud that our people are vibrant and alive. Every generation will have its Hitler and its Osama Bin Laden. But good will triumph over evil, as it did today.