Sirens And Symbols: Scenes From My Balcony

Play, play, on the dreams, 
It is I, the playful dreamer
Play, for in man I will believe
For I still believe in You

Oh my soul for liberation aspires still
I have not sold it for a golden calf
For I still believe in man
And in his spirit, willful spirit

I learned a new song last week, on the evening of Yom HaShoah. It seemed like everyone else, the Israelis, knew it already, an old classic. I hummed along until I caught on to the melody sufficiently, and followed along in my booklet, an anthology designed for the occasion
– “The Responsibility to Remember – Remembering Our Responsibility.

The violin accompanying our voices sounded dreamy and longing. I noticed tears filling my eyes; some kind of contact had been made without my realizing it. I touched something; something touched me. I didn’t need to know all the words.

I learned the song, “I Believe,” was written by Shaul Tchernichovsky, when he was seventeen and living in Mandate Palestine, meditating somberly on the places he left behind while embarking on a new future. I live just a block or two away from Tchernichovsky Street in Jerusalem. His name is a bus stop to me. His face is folded in my wallet.

And he could never really envision this place now. Those in whose memories we sing could never have imagined in their wildest dreams the life I am living now, the slices of life I witness in brief morning moments from my balcony. The very things to which he aspired surround me every day; they await me just below my balcony. 

My privilege is to live in a world of inherited symbols, abstractions representing legacies I never knew. My blessing is the capacity, the standing, that allows me to take these things for granted.

A native Israeli, in elementary school, asks his father to sign a permission slip for his class field trip to Ben-Gurion’s House. “Abba, have you ever been there?” he inquires curiously. “Yes, actually – my battalion was stationed to guard Ben-Gurion there a few times.” A life becomes a symbol – an airport, an intersection, a word detached from a human being. Is this a triumph? A tragedy? Just a truth?

Given these distances, between stories and their extracted meanings, their residual seedlings, we reach out to touch, stretching to poke at heirlooms we might – dare we say it – prefer to leave alone, as if we had a say in the matter. But this is a battle and a dance with memory, in the sense that compels and looms, nagging to be acknowledged, if not fully understood. We have been summoned. There is no escaping jury duty or the weight of collective memory.

We search for ways to engage authentically with our histories, from wherever we stand. We try to recognize and reconcile our distance, our ignorance, our limitations. We work to overcome it all but know we will never fully bridge the gap. Not even close. But maybe in this admission there is an opening for connection, a point of contact.

This Yom HaShoah, my friends mostly attend or host “Zikaron BaSalon” (“Remembering in the Living Room”) events, where people gather informally in someone’s home to sing, share stories, and hold space for the memories that scream so loud but escape the bounds of words. It seems we are seeking new channels, beyond the prescribed, formal ceremonies. We stand still for the sirens, and two minutes feels like forever, and also like no time at all. We are searching, through songs and through silence, to touch moments beyond our grasp.

During the siren on Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror), I choose to stand on my mirpeset because I want to peek down and see life freeze for those two minutes. I want to be with Jerusalem. I want to be with my people when that blaring wail captures us for 120 seconds. A woman and the tiny poodle she is walking both pause mid-step. Four drivers that had just a moment ago been honking aggressively at each other, park in the middle of the intersection and stand next to their cars in complete stillness.

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I squeeze the hand of a former combat soldier, the product of a settlement. I try to seal closed the space between our respective experiences. There will always be cracks. We let ourselves surrender to the stunning silence. I know I will never relate to these memorials in the way he does, although I am familiar with many of the traditional songs on Galgalatz’s day-long Yom Hazikaron marathon, from the years of ceremonies at school. I remember most of the poems and readings, and they still get to me. But they are not mine in the way they are his.

He has a flashback to fifth grade, when his teacher ran out of the classroom crying when trying to break the news of a local terror attack. And then to third grade, the day after a suicide bombing at the local mall; several teenagers were murdered, all for eating pizza together to celebrate their friend’s birthday.

They told us to draw — just to draw anything. Because some things are too hard to express in words. I don’t think they explained it to us like that at the time. But I think that now I understand.”

Standing on my mirpeset (balcony) looking at the sunshine, or not quite looking but witnessing. Absorbing. Three small girls with pink backpacks walk out of my building and head to school.

Watching from my mirpeset, the unreliable bus line passes by and I hear it announce the next stop. The bus’ neon letters say “Yeshayahu,” “Isaiah,” the prophet who is now a bus stop at the end of the line.

Sitting on my mirpeset one night, I begrudgingly pause my podcast out of curiosity about the sudden roar of singing and cheering I hear from nearby. “Still there will be heard in the cities of Judah and the outskirts of Jerusalem the voice of gladness and the voice of joy, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride!” There is no way I am more than two degrees of Jewish Geography away from this newly engaged couple, I quietly assume to myself. Different tunes of the same song overlap, the men and women singing over each other at different paces, completely out of sync. “V’Kol Kallah!” (“And the voice of the bride!”), a loud shrieking group of young women emphasize emphatically each round of the song.

I live in Jerusalem and it is so tempting to bask in the notion of the fulfillment of redemptive prophecies; how enticing it is to overhear these songs, the same uproarious melodies sung for every engaged couple, and point to these voices as proof of arrival to our “destination.” We have lost so much along the way, and we have a long way to go. 

I have moments of skepticism toward what I call “Happily Ever” Holocaust, and Yom Hazikaron, stories – the quotes about how good still prevails in the world, the tales of kindness, the anecdotes of piety and humanity, the miracles of divine providence. It’s not that I am heartless; I find these things extremely moving. But the lives that were stolen and sacrificed throughout the history from which I sprout were not merely devices to propel a larger narrative.

There is a small but disturbing sense that recalling these stories implies some sort of acceptance of evil, as though the endurance of hell could ever be “worth it” for a heartwarming message, for hasbara (pro-Israel advocacy), or for religious coercion. As though every fallen soldier must be a hero in order to merit mourning their passing. I want to find a way to remember in the fullest sense, with a range of honest feelings and outlets for expressing them, but without the construction of manipulative narratives – of heroism, of the illusion of insight in hindsight, the way things seem inevitable once they have already happened.

I want to remember things I never knew in the first place. And so I stand bewildered on my balcony.

My people have suffered, and we are still hurting. And we are also living lives full of love and aspiration. And these many realities stand alongside each other, holding hands as it were, frozen in the eternity of a siren.