Written last year, just after I got back from the ceremony on Har Herzl.
We walk up Herzl in a big, blue-and-white, seminary girl crowd, talking about diets and the chilly weather. In front of me, three girls are punching each other in the arm, first punch-baby-bug and then ‘punch you for no reason, just because I feel like it.’ One of them whines, “Sto-op. I got a shot there- like eight years ago,” and they all giggle. We pass a soldier standing at the bus stop and I want to go over to him and thank him or something weird like that, but instead I grin vaguely at his back and keep on walking.
There are flags everywhere- on houses, on cars, and tiny flag toothpicks in everyone’s hair. One girl wears an IDF t-shirt with little sleeves sneaking out from underneath to cover her elbows and whines that she doesn't match. At the top of the hill there are a couple of soldiers chatting with one another, and the urge to talk to them is quickly replaced by the urge to take pictures. The more shy girls hand their cameras to friends, and the whole group is held up for a couple of minutes on the corner. The soldiers don’t look directly at us, but it’s pretty obvious they notice us standing there like Paparazzi. I wonder with a friend whether they find it annoying or funny to be photographed by random giggling Americans.
As we move into Har Herzl, the crowd gets thicker and motion slows to the traffic jam shuffle. There is a table by the entrance covered in flowers. We are debating whether or not to buy any when we discover that they’re being given away, so everyone takes a bunch of flowers, and later a candle and a bottle of water from the smiling teenaged girls who are handing them out. Todah raba I say, self-conscious of my accent, but I shuffle onwards too soon for their lo davar.
We stop at the first security check, waiting for our group to re-coalesce, and I use the opportunity to check out the crowds. About three quarters of the people are wearing blue and white, so that the soldiers stand out in their uniforms and bright berets. Other than the disproportionate number of soldiers, the crowd is a wide but biased sampling of the general population- chareidim and Arabs entirely missing. Seminary girls in pony-tails, short women with their hair dyed bright red being loud on cell-phones, slim Israeli boys in jeans and t-shirts with English slogans. A soldier in a knitted kippa hails another one just in front of us and they shake hands into a one-pat hug.
Now we’re moving again and we slowly realize that we have just entered the grave-yard. It’s set up in rows and rows of raised dirt beds marked by matching headstones and is somehow eerier than a regular cemetery, where everything is neat and underground. I’m too busy watching people to remember the flowers that I’m still carrying and anyway, it seems wrong to just drop them on a grave as I walk by. There are little stools among the graves, with people sitting on them and crying, or just sitting. On the other side of the path are benches, filled and over-filled with families or soldiers in matching berets.
Already, I find myself composing it in my head like a story and this is the sentence that forms: “You realize that everyone here is just the same people that you meet on the street. That bereaved father over there is the taxi driver who ran up the meter on the way back from the tachana, or the man who does the dry cleaning. That girl putting down the flowers (a brother’s grave? A boyfriend’s?) is the one who you saw in the makolet, talking on her cell phone while buying milk. Those soldiers gathered silently before the grave are the ones you walk by just a little faster when you see them at the mall because you’re afraid they’ll try to hit on you.” I can’t tell if it adds reality to the scene or the opposite.
I read the names off gravestones as we go by, trying to imagine them- Roni Cohen, 24, and beyond him another Cohen. Yitzchak something, 20. Shoshi, 20. I keep saying to myself “These people were my age, this is me, this is my brother,” but I have no real hope of bringing it home. I try to match them to faces that I know, but I am a little too superstitious or weirded out to finish the thoughts. Past the graves is another security check, and before it, another unruly, pushing sort of line. I think of my father’s observation- Israelis will never cut in a line, but often there just won’t be a line to begin with. The madrichot push to the front to negotiate for the rest of us.
We stand around and look at the crowd. We are still holding our flowers and wonder if we should have put them down somewhere. Eventually, they get left in a heap by the side of the path because we are too shy to hand them to passing strangers.
Girls start meeting friends from other schools and the whole thing degenerates into a social scene before we are called through. I carefully thank the guards at the checkpoint, but they aren’t really paying enough attention to notice. The crowd stops again- another checkpoint, this one for our bags. I have caught up or wandered into my friend who is asking the madrichot about the exact meanings of different beret colors, and the madricha tells her about the aptitude tests that everyone takes in twelfth grade to determine their unit. Twelfth grade? I think. I should be in the army by now. I wonder what score I would have gotten. We go through the last security check, handing over cell phones and solemnly answering Lo to the guards’ Yesh lach neshek?
I thank the guard, hurrying to rejoin the group by the rows of chairs facing the podium. The Master of Ceremonies asks everyone to turn off their cell phones, both in Hebrew and English, but there are still several more minutes of shuffling and trying to find seats not blocked by trees. The ceremony starts with a minute of silence and ends with Hatikva. I am surrounded by Americans, but a few seats away are some Israeli girls, crying freely. The speeches are short and it is hard to concentrate without being able to see the speakers. Cell phones ring throughout. I feel bad for the girls who don’t understand Hebrew, but am still annoyed at their restlessness and must suppress the urge to shush them.
There is a unit of soldiers on the stage, presenting arms, standing at ease and firing a salute at the end. There is just enough of a gap between the people in front of me to see six of their faces and I struggle to make them human, imagine how they feel and their nervousness and how their feet hurt and who they think of during the siren. After the ceremony, some of them pass me on the way out, now moving and talking among themselves, identifiable by their white marine-style hats.
We make our way out to Nachshon Waxman’s grave, and Meechal Madricha tells us what it was like when he was kidnapped and his father’s famous line 'Sometimes G-d says no.' I am surprised to find myself crying. For a few minutes, we wander around and I am finally able to imagine faces on the graves or at least imagine that they have faces. And I realize how young these people all really were.
Another thought forms: these weren’t special people, and probably I would have done whatever they did had I been called upon to do so. But I was not called upon and the people in these slim dirt boxes (I can’t understand how a real full-sized person could possibly fit in a box so small)- these people were called upon and that changes them, makes them heroes. I cry a bit and someone hands me a couple of tissues, and then we all head back to school.