The day before Independence Day is Yom ha-Zikaron (יום הזיכרון) - Israel's day of remembrance for those who died in wars or terrorist attacks. It's a very somber day, in what felt like a more personal way than Yom ha-Shoah, which happened the previous week on Thursday. Beginning a few days beforehand, Israeli radio and television stations started to broadcast stories about fallen soldiers and those who died in terrorist attacks. On the day itself, that is all that was broadcast. I usually listen to Reshet Bet, which is the news station of Israel Radio (something like NPR in the US but more closely tied to the government), and from Tuesday afternoon onwards and throughout Wednesday they broadcast a series of stories about individuals and groups who had died, and interviewed survivors of various battles from the War of Independence onward, as well as families who had a relative who had died in battle or in a terrorist attack, and survivors of terrorist attacks. Sometimes I had to turn off the radio because it was simply too sad.
Yom ha-Zikaron began on Tuesday evening with a siren at 8:00 p.m., lasting for one minute. Immediately afterwards the official remembrance ceremony began at the Kotel (Western Wall). President Peres spoke, and I think Netanyahu did also. The El Malei Rahamim (God, full of compassion) prayer, with its mournful tune, was sung, as it always is during the remembrance of the dead.
The next morning when I got up I listened to more stories and then went out to do some shopping. As I was standing on Emek Refaim St. the morning siren went off at 11:00 a.m. Everything stopped - the cars in the street, pedestrians, people on bicycles. The cars stopped and the drivers got out and stood next to them. Pedestrians stopped in their tracks and from what I could see most people were bowing their heads. Oddly enough, two people continued - one a pedestrian, who was walking on the side of the street opposite from me. Then a motorbike appeared and kept weaving around all of the stopped cars as well as a bus and a big truck, and then disappearing north up the street. It's very unusual for that to happen, as far as I know, at least among most Israeli Jews - Arabs generally don't stop for the siren, nor do anti-Zionist haredi Jews, who don't respect the official celebration or commemorative days of the state, since they don't recognize its legitimacy. Nonetheless, it was very eerie to see all the people just stopped, without the usual traffic sounds, and the loud siren in our ears.
In the afternoon I went with a friend to Tzur Hadassah, which is a small community in the Judean hills not far from Jerusalem. I spent the evening with them, first celebrating their son's sixth birthday, and then going to a special service for the end of Yom ha-Zikaron. It was held at the house of Rabbi Levi Cooper, who is the rabbi of the small Orthodox synagogue Ha-Tzur ve-ha-Tzohar (the link is to an article in Hebrew on Ynet). The service is based on one written for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for Yom Ha-Atzmaut, but it had definitely had some non-traditional aspects. We began by singing sad songs, which was followed by a brief video interview of the widow of a soldier who had died in the second Lebanon War in 2006 - he threw himself on a grenade to save the lives of his men. The songs then became happier as we approached Yom ha-Atzmaut. This part of the service ended with the recital of several psalms. For the first one, each congregant, first the men and then the women, recited the verses in turn. (Since this is an Orthodox shul, I hadn't expected the women to be asked!). Then the rabbi blew the shofar, and began the evening service (Ma'ariv). Prayers were sung with tunes from celebratory Israeli songs. It was a very moving service. I hadn't known what to expect at all, since I've never been to one of these services.