There’s no place quite like Jerusalem, and that statement became even more evident to me after experiencing Israel’s two most important secular holidays here. The secular holiday season begins right after the end of Passover, starting with Yom Ha’Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). There are all sorts of interpretations as to why the holidays are ordered as they are, but exactly a week after mourning the 6 million, the country mourns its soldiers killed in action and citizens murdered in terrorist attacks. The day after is the biggest party of the year: Independence Day.
When I was on EIE they took us to the annual Yom Ha’Zikaron ceremony at the Kotel that the IDF puts on every year at night (all holidays, even the secular ones, begin in the evening when the sun goes down). I knew that it was the place to be and that I wanted to go there again. The ceremony began at 8 p.m., but we got there early because we knew there would be long lines at security. On our walk through the Cardo, I spotted the newly-renovated Hurva Synagogue (the one that’s supposed to help bring the Messiah):
I immediately tried to get into the press section, but it turns out that IDF events are much harder to weasel one’s way into. I hadn’t come up with a good story for myself, it had holes, and I knew that when I overheard an IDF official telling the IDF official in charge of American press something about the story I was telling them. They were very nice about it, but told me that next time I should get in touch with the Government Press Office ahead of time. In spite of my failure, I still snagged a great spot almost against the barrier because my friends and I had arrived so early. On the other hand, two very tall men were standing in front of us, so I couldn’t get good pictures. The scene before the ceremony:
Yom Ha’Zikaron memorial services are mostly silent, but this one began with a siren that sounded all over Jerusalem at 8 p.m. on the dot. It was very powerful and moving, hearing that siren while standing in front of the Kotel. I can only imagine what it was like when the paratroopers reached the Old City and captured the Kotel, reuniting the city and reclaiming something that is so central to Judaism. Shimon Peres spoke, the memorial flame was lit, El Maleh Rachamim (a prayer for the departed), and everyone joined in for the Mourner’s Kaddish. We ended with the singing of Ha’Tikvah, the national anthem. During the ceremony:
We were all about to go home when someone reminded us that Jeff Seidel was having an event at Aish Ha’Torah, a yeshiva for mainly ba’alei teshuva (people who are Jewish but want to become more observant and be “real” Jews and “return” to Judaism), which is set back from the Kotel. The flyer had advertised that a solider was going to speak about his experience in the Second Lebanon War, and I figured why not, it would definitely be interesting and a sort of Yom Ha’Zikaron mitzvah, per se. I should have known that with Jeff Seidel, it’s never that simple.
So most of us made our way through the maze that is the Jewish Quarter to Aish. First, we went into the older building, and young men who were exiting told us girls that we “probably weren’t allowed in there,” and we eventually figured out that the event was in the newer building, which had just been finished in December. This new building, the World Center, looks like a 5-star hotel on the inside. I couldn’t help but notice a blown-glass chandelier hanging from the ceiling:
I wondered aloud to a friend if it was indeed a Chihuly. She told me she had seen an exhibit of his and that it looked like his work. It had to be Chihuly, but who really had enough money to buy a really big one for a yeshiva in Jerusalem? What business did it have hanging there? After the talk, I went up to one of the guys who seemed to run the place and asked him about it, and he said it was a Chihuly. Sure, the event itself sucked (details below), but it was worth attending just to see that chandelier.
I said before that things are never simple at a Jeff Seidel event. Our speaker, I forgot his name already, looked young enough, maybe 30 or so and, of course, a secular American Jew by birth. The fast and easy version of his story is that he was a bad kid who got into a lot of trouble, dropped out of college to become a Phish groupie, made aliyah when Phish broke up because there was nothing left to live for in the States, worked at a bar in Tel Aviv for a while, joined the army after a terrorist attack at said bar during the height of the Second Intifada, served in the Second Lebanon War, and after a near-death experience decided it was time to learn Torah, which is how he arrived at Aish. He’s actually only been studying there for 2 years or so, meaning he’s still undergoing the process. However, he’s also obviously far enough along because he couldn’t end his speech without indoctrinating us, encouraging us to find ourselves during our last months in Israel, and saying that we should find that life has more meaning with Torah and we should take advantage of all Jeff Seidel has to offer us and of the classes at Aish. You can imagine I was squirming in my seat.
Aish/Jeff Seidel did a great job in terms of showing us a good time. There were bagels and cream cheese from the States, and when the guy was done speaking they took us up to the roof for the most spectacular view of the Kotel I have ever seen:
But I was ready to get out of there, and I needed a good night’s sleep because a group of us left the k’far at 8:15 the next morning to go to the memorial service at Mt. Herzl, the military cemetery. Though it didn’t start until 11 a.m., we went because apparently the director of the Hebrew U/Rothberg musical told people in the play that he could get seats for them and their friends if we got there really early. Even at 9 a.m. I could tell it was going to be crowded:
After going through security, which included having my hands scanned for any of the chemicals present in gunpowder, our group snagged seats close to the front of the non-VIP section. Though we sat there for an hour before the ceremony began, all because we wanted to snag these seats, about 5 minutes before everything started it became a free for all and people moved their chairs forward, stood up on them, sat on the ground. I personally braved an especially thorny rosebush to stand on a ledge so I could get as close as possible:
First, there was a 2-minute siren, and after that Benjamin Netanyahu spoke. It was the first time I had ever seen him, which was pretty cool, and now I can add that experience to my collection. Here he is:
I think someone else spoke as well, but after the speeches a lot of important people like Bibi, Peres, and Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch put up these wreaths:
Following that was the 21-gun salute. If the play director hadn’t warned me about it beforehand, I would have probably ducked and covered:
It ended just like the night before, with El Maleh Rachamim, the Mourner’s Kaddish, and Ha’Tikvah. We walked a bit through the cemetery because at the entrance to Mt. Herzl, volunteers had been handing out free bouquets to put on graves, and we wanted to participate. But walking around there was painful, because I saw a lot of people crying or looking like they had been crying, and you truly realize that the people buried there are sons, brothers, aunts, cousins, and friends. By that time it was really crowded and hard to move, but here are some photos:
I spent the rest of the day hanging out back at the k’far, resting up for that night’s festivities that would kick off Independence Day. We headed out at around 9 to Kikar Safra, the square behind the Jerusalem Municipality, for some shira ba’tzibur, or “singing in public.” It was cute, but we left because we didn’t know any of the songs, and so we walked up Yaffo to Ben Yehuda, which was definitely a more rambunctious and spirited scene. The street was the most crowded I had ever seen it, and teenagers ran around spraying silly string at each other and whatever passers-by got caught in the cross-hairs, including yours truly:
People were selling all sorts of food, light-up toys, and other carnival-esque fare. I bought a headband that sported a pair of light-up Israeli flags, but all of the kids had these inflatable hammers and mallets:
Once we’d had enough of Ben Yehuda, we walked to the shuk for a huge party that was happening there:
I’ve noticed that Israel has a penchant for gigantic dance parties in busy public places, and I like it. There were so many people there that I couldn’t move, and the only thing missing was the actual food itself. Some of the falafel stands were open, but I’m more of a dried-fruit-and-nuts kind of girl. I probably left around 1 a.m., but I thought the music was really good and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
But wait, there’s more! Israelis love nothing more than a good barbecue, especially on Independence Day, so barbecuing was what we were going to do (even though we knew nothing about it). We bought a dinky portable grill at the grocery store, charcoal, chicken hot dogs, buns, and we thought we would just wing it once we got to Gan Sacker, a huge park by the Central Bus Station and other Hebrew U campus that’s always been the place to be for the biggest grilling and picnicking holiday of the year.
We got there at around 1 p.m., which is still pretty early to have lunch by European/Israeli standards, but it was already packed and we had trouble finding shade:
Upon loading up the grill with the charcoal, we realized that we didn’t actually know how to light them on fire, even though we had some ideas. Someone was watching out for us, though, because the people next to us offered to let us use their grill which they were finished with, and it was still hot. They even offered us spices to put on our chicken dogs! A thing about the chicken dogs: It’s not like they were raw, so all we had to do was put them on the grill until we were satisfied. I volunteered to do the “grilling,” and even though it wasn’t like grilling raw meat or chicken, I still felt pretty accomplished because I remembered having been so afraid of the grill back when I was at Kutz and it was the staff’s responsibility to man the Saturday night cookouts. Me in action:
Our picnic spread:
Jeff Seidel did his own barbecue with $600 worth of beer (at least that was the rumor), so I also went over there to steal some of his food. By the late afternoon the sky was clouding up and it was windy, very unusual weather for spring in Jerusalem, so we left. Just sitting around, talking, eating, and soaking up some dangerous UVB rays just like normal Israelis was the perfect way to spend the day. As usual, it was difficult to comprehend the fact that I actually had class the next day, but our next holiday is only 3 weeks from now, and then a week after that is Shavuot. Time really is flying, but don’t get me started on that topic because I don’t want to think about it.