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A Holiday In Memoriam – To Celebrate or To Mourn?



By Rabbi Mark Wildes, with contributions by Michelle Soffen

Dedicated to the memory of slain student Second Lieutenant Richard W. Collins III

It’s 8:00pm. The world around comes to a sudden halt. Cars break mid highway as phones are put away and conversations paused. A nation unites in complete stillness, and for an entire minute, no sound can be heard for miles but the cry of a siren.

This soul penetrating ring is the official start of Yom Hazikaron – Memorial Day in Israel; the national day of remembrance set aside for honoring fallen heroes who died in active duty defending the Jewish homeland, and for the thousands of civilian victims of terror. Throughout the next 24 hours, graves are visited, ceremonies held, and tears shed. By law, all places of entertainment are closed and tv stations mark the solemnity of the day. One channel screens the entire list of names of all those being remembered.

23,544 – The number of Israeli soldiers remembered this past May 1.

3,117 – The number of victims of terror in Israel also remembered this past May 1.

21 Million – the number of cases of beer purchased to wash down the 818 hot dogs consumed per second during “peak hot dog season”, kicked off on Memorial Day in the United States just a few weeks later. This is in memory of the 1.3 Million members of the armed services who lost their lives in conflict, and the 42+ Million veterans who have served the United States during war time.  

Barbecues, beer, beef, 2 for 1 sales, marathons, auto racing, and travel – this is what Memorial Day looks like for the average American. It is the unofficial start of the summer season, a day for busting out the white pants, and enjoying a day off work.

An Israeli friend of mine visiting the U.S. experienced Memorial Day here for the first time last year. “I was at first horrified,” she explained to me. “I was expecting something similar to what we do in Israel. I couldn’t understand how you are all so happy – drinking, going to the beach, having barbecues, on the day you are remembering the people who sacrificed their lives for you. But then an American friend explained to me that it is not meant to be a solemn day here – that instead of mourning you choose to celebrate the many freedoms the U.S. cherishes; the freedoms that the army fights to protect.”

She paused to think, then continued. “It makes sense; you should of course celebrate your wonderful country – but it could never be this way for us on Memorial Day in Israel. I don’t want you to think I am judging you; for us, it is just different. There is not a single person who is not directly affected by the conflicts we face. We all know someone personally in active duty, and we all know someone either in our immediate circles or extended circles who has died because of the conflict. I think until we have security and peace with our neighbors, it will continue to be an extremely sad day for us.”

My friend’s remarks got me thinking. How did the U.S. Memorial Day become what it is? How did it start? And have we come so far as a country to merit a day of pure celebration marked with little to no solemnity for the average American?

Most Americans know that Memorial Day, despite its festive nature, is about honoring the nation’s war dead. Few Americans, however, and including myself until recently, know the real history of the holiday. For an in depth look at the history and transformation of the day, I highly recommend the book “Race and Reunion”, by David W. Blight, a professor of history and the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale. For a quicker summary, see the article he wrote for The New York Times in May of 2011, “Forgetting Why We Remember”.

The very first Memorial Day commemoration occurred on May 1, 1865. It was the last year of the Civil War, and Charleston, S.C. had been taken over by the Union Troops. When the Confederate Troops fled, they left behind a mass grave of Union Prisoners, hastily buried after being kept in horrific conditions on what had once been the town race track.

According to archival evidence discovered by Blight, “after the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, ‘Martyrs of the Race Course’.”

Along with White Abolitionists, the Black people of Charleston, mostly former slaves, staged a procession of 10,000 around the track.

“The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots,” Blight explains.

Many early Memorial Day events on the Union side took on a similar character of both solemn honoring of the Union dead, as well as remembering the importance of the emancipationist cause. Only a short while later, as reconstruction ended in the South and unity became a political necessity, a new Memorial Day took shape. This day honored both the Union and Confederate fallen soldiers, dropping the struggle for equal rights of all Americans and emancipation from the conversation, replacing it with a call for moving forward together as a new nation.

In a 2007 op-ed for the New York Times, referencing Blight’s work, Adam Cohen argues the disservice done to our country by forgetting the original meaning of Memorial Day. He explains that “When Woodrow Wilson spoke at Gettysburg on the 50th anniversary of the battle, in a Memorial Day-like ceremony, he avoided the subject of slavery… and declared ‘the quarrel’ between North and South ‘forgotten.’ The ceremony was segregated, and a week later Wilson’s administration created separate white and black bathrooms in the Treasury Department. It would be another 50 years before the nation seriously took up the cause of racial equality again.”

Perhaps dropping this aspect of the holiday from the national conversation seriously delayed the Civil Rights Movement.

After WWI, the meaning of Memorial Day expanded to become about the fallen in all of our nation’s wars. Over time, the holiday took on a more and more commercial character to become what it is today. Yes, graves are still decorated, government memorial services and parades are still held, but nearly all sense of sanctity and solemnity have been lost.

Cohen asserts, “Memorial Day… began with the conviction that to properly honor the war dead, it is necessary to honestly contemplate the cause for which they fought.”

This, I believe, is why Israel’s Memorial Day is so starkly different from that of the United States. The narrative of Yom Hazikaron is one that not only honors the fallen, but is connected to the causes for which they died – the 2000 year old struggle for Jewish self determination, security, and peace in their indigenous homeland; for the idea that no blood, including Jewish blood, is cheap; and for the hope that all life on Earth will be treated as precious. The meaning of Yom Hazikaron and the weight it carries is woven into the very fabric of Israeli society; it is in the tossing and turning at night of every mother with a child serving out his/her mandatory conscription in the IDF, in the threat of terrorism that looms regularly, and in the too many friends and loved ones lost on all sides of the conflict. This trauma and hope is what that 8pm siren and the events of the day urge Israelis to come together and contemplate.  

Yes, the Jewish People have achieved unprecedented levels of autonomy and dignity with the blessing that is the modern state of Israel. Part of their dream has been realized. For this, Israelis celebrate boldly and proudly on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day which comes right after Israeli Memorial Day). Until there is peace, however, the struggle of the Jewish people and their fallen heroes remains unfinished, and Israel’s day in memoriam is a day in mourning.

Though there is nothing inherently wrong with honoring the memory of America’s fallen soldiers by celebrating the freedoms we treasure, when we become so far detached from the causes for which they died and the original meaning of the holiday, we do a disservice to the country and ideals we intend to celebrate.

Perhaps if on the U.S. Memorial Day we contemplated more directly the causes for which our soldiers have fought and fallen, from the Revolutionary War, through the Civil War, all the way to our current War on Terror – maybe we would realize that while we have cause to celebrate, we also have reason still to mourn.

As Memorial Day Weekend in the U.S. approaches, I find myself thinking about the wars we continue to fight as a country both abroad and at home.

I am thinking of the victims of the recent attack in Manchester and their families. I am praying for the triumph of all peace-loving people against hatred and radical extremist perversions of Islam.

I am also thinking about Richard W. Collins III; the 23 year old black student who had just been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army and was soon to train in defending the U.S. against chemical attacks. This amazing young man was cut down in his prime; murdered this past weekend by a 22 year old white student at a bus stop for refusing to move. Though officials say it is too early to claim this a hate crime, it is being investigated as such as the perpetrator was a member of a white supremacist facebook group “Alt-Reich: Nation”, known for espousing hate against Black people. Many are calling the murderer a “home grown terrorist,” and the murder a lynching. Time will tell what his motives were, but without a doubt we are living in an era all too stained by racial inequality, partisan intolerance, and senseless hatred.

Are we truly connected to the causes for which our soldiers fought and continue to fight? Do we as a nation have with enough significance and clarity the conversation around the continued struggle for civil rights (the natural extension of emancipation)? Does every American in practice have the equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? The answer, unfortunately, is no.

Yes, I will be having a beer this Memorial Day. Life is too precious to stop celebrating. However, I will also be taking time with my family to reflect and honor the memory of our soldiers the best way we can: by connecting to their causes and by remembering that their fight is not done. Indeed, we have much to celebrate, but we also have a long ways to go.

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