Americans, Gil Troy notes, are accustomed to associating Memorial Day with sales and barbecues. In Israel, it is altogether different. As Troy writes, “Spurred by two moments of silence—first at 8 p.m., then at 11 a.m.—the entire nation mourns together.” Alongside other rituals, both local and national, the sirens create the sense of living memory that defines virtually all Jewish holidays. These observances also help form a kind of civil religion, which “needs sacred moments that mute partisanship by consecrating shared memory.”
A popular Zionist yarn claims that in 1954, then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles dismissed Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, asking, “After 2,000 years of exile, can you honestly speak about a single nation, a single culture?” Noting that the Mayflower landed in America merely 300 years earlier, Ben-Gurion invited Dulles to find any “ten American children” and ask them, “What was the name of the captain of the Mayflower? How long did the voyage take? What did the people who were on the ship eat?”
Yet, Ben-Gurion noted, even though the Jews left Egypt 3,000 years earlier, thanks to the Passover holiday, which emphasizes educating one’s children about what happened—and ritualizing the teaching and learning—most Jewish kids know that Moses led the Jews, that they wandered 40 years before reaching Israel, and that they ate unleavened matzah on the run.
Jews kept Judaism and Jewish memory alive by reliving history through ritual.
With theaters closed, concert halls silenced, restaurants shuttered, radios playing somber songs, and every television station broadcasting martyrs’ tales, this new holy day enshrouds the whole country in a sacred silence.