The scene was almost surreal; it was as though I was looking at a painting. Cars and busses were all at a standstill, with people standing outside of them completely immobile. Along the sidewalks pedestrians were also as still as statues.
And in the air – almost complete silence. Almost.
Only the high pitched wailing of the siren which continued for a full a full two minutes was heard. Nothing else. No sounds. No movement.
Like looking at a painting.
But of course, it wasn't a painting, and it wasn't even surreal. It was very real. It was the view from in front of our building this morning at 10:00 when the siren sounded commemorating Yom HaSho'ah, Holocaust Memorial Day.
What I saw, was similar, albeit on a smaller scale, to what was seen all across Israel at the very moment. In Tel Aviv on the busy city streets and the malls and coffee shops, in Jerusalem along the outdoor pedestrian malls and in the Machane Yehuda shuk. And everywhere else in the country – in Haifa, Be'er Sheva, Tiberias, Metulla in the far north and in the southern tip of the country in Eilat. On kibbutzim, moshavim, settlements large and small, towns and villages and on the roads in between – the entire country came to a complete halt for two full minutes.
Every year when we observe this silence in honor and in memory of the 6 million Jews and 5 million others slaughtered by the Nazis, what strikes me the most is not the two minutes of silence, but rather that immediately when the siren ends, life goes "back to normal".
People get back in their cars and busses, they sit back down to their coffee at the sidewalk cafes, they take out their cell phones and make that call, go back into the store to buy whatever it was they were buying, and life goes on.
Jews in general and Israel in particular are often accused of dwelling on the Holocaust. Apparently it is the boogeyman on our shoulder guiding our every abuse of the Palestinians, our constant cry for sympathy from the world and our excuse for every one of our personal and national neuroses.
Yet for all of our alleged obsession, the "highlight" of our annual Holocaust observance is two minutes of respectful silence and then back to the daily grind.
Of course, there are many other things we do here all day to commemorate Yom HaSho'ah, and these are all very powerful and very meaningful.
Very moving ceremonies are held in the evening when we begin the commemoration of Yom HaSho'ah as well as in the morning immediately after the national siren. In schools across the country ceremonies are held commemorating the day, and in addition to the regular lessons, time is set aside for lessons and discussions about the Holocaust.
The radio stations all play somber, day-appropriate music, and the TV channels – including the cable and satellite stations – either stop broadcasting for the day or devote all programming to Holocaust-related material. I was extremely impressed, even moved to tears when my daughter came home from school today, and as she usually does, turned on the television for a little bit of relax before homework. She turned on the Disney Channel, and the programming was child-oriented Holocaust educational shows. Even better, the two shows that I watched with her were both extremely well made – sensitive, age appropriate, but without pussy-footing around the seriousness of the topic.
But life does indeed go on. And while we must never forget those who perished in the Holocaust, and we must always be on guard to prevent anything like it ever happening again, the fact that we observe the two minutes of silence and then return to whatever we were doing highlights for me the fact that we do have a proper perspective of the Holocaust and it's place in history.
We have just entered what for me is the most powerful and emotionally moving week-long period of the year.
Beginning today with Yom HaSho'ah, a week from today we will observe Yom HaZikaron - Israel's Memorial Day Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism. Immediately when Memorial Day ends, Israel's Independence Day begins.
For many people this is a difficult transition, to go from the heaviness and mourning atmosphere of Yom HaZikaron straight into the joy and celebration of Yom HaAtzma'ut - Independence Day,
But I don't agree.
Only by first remembering the price which we have paid to have the State of Israel can we truly appreciate what it means to have it. By paying proper tribute to those who have died in order that we can live here the celebration of independence means more than fireworks, barbecues and concerts (although those are also wonderful aspects of the holiday).
In some ways it even means that our joy in the celebration is less than it would otherwise be. And even that's OK too. Jewish tradition teaches us that when God parted of the Red Sea, the angels in heaven wanted to sing, but God wouldn't allow them. He said that when His children (i.e. the Egyptians) were dying, celebration was not appropriate. Even with the Egyptians receiving the punishment that they deserved, it does not negate the point that God was in a position that He had to kill His children and that was a cause for mourning, not celebration.
The same holds true for celebrating Israel's independence. We are happy, and we do celebrate what we have – but it is not a bottomless pit of joy. As we do not let ourselves forget the Holocaust in order to keep it from ever repeating itself, we also do not forget that in order to have our State we have been forced by neighbors and by circumstances to kill other of God's children, and to have many of our own killed as well. And we continue to pray for the day when that killing might come to an end, and that we can all celebrate without limits. And live in peace.