When the siren went off all over Israel at 10am this morning for Yom HaShoah, I watched as the country came to a momentary standstill. From my third-floor office overlooking the Jerusalem municipal swimming pool, I watched swimmers freeze mid-lap and stand at attention in the water. Just beyond, on the busy shop-lined artery of Emek Refaim, I saw merchants leave their stores and stand in the doorways; I saw drivers turn off their engines, get out of the front seat, and stand beside their vehicles; and I saw burly strong-armed workers stop unloading groceries from a truck and put down their crates for two full minutes of silent commemoration.
This memorial siren will go off twice again next week, on the evening and morning of Yom Hazikaron. It has been sounded every year on Yom Hashoah since the early 1960s, and, as such, might be considered a national symbol. It is even the subject of a video installation, as I learned two nights ago when I went to an exhibit on contemporary Israeli art that opened this week at the Israel Museum. In this video, called “Trembling Time,” the young Israeli artist Yael Bartana filmed the Ayalon Highway as the siren sounded at the start of Yom Hazikaron. Using slow-motion photography and the reverberating sound of the siren, Bartana shows how time comes to a halt even on the busiest thoroughfare.
I wish I could say that when the siren went off this morning, I was entirely focused on the victims of the Shoah. I wish I could say that my head was in the right place, that I was absorbed in solemn reflection and engaged in heart-felt prayer. While I was grateful to have the time to commemmorate, I found myself, in those moments, also marveling at what it means to stand still. I am not a person who likes to stop – “How dull it is to pause,” I often find myself quoting from Tennyson. I would rather walk for 45 minutes than wait five minutes at a bus stop. When I come to a red light, I usually walk to the next corner instead of waiting for the light to turn green. In my work, too, I rarely take breaks; instead I usually do three things at once, regarding my efficiency as an aesthetic of sorts. And so stopping–for a siren, or for anything–is very much against my nature.
And yet Judaism is a religion that demands that we stop. Each week on Friday afternoon, we have to put aside whatever we are doing for at least 25 hours and greet Shabbat. (“Creative people have often told me that they find this impossible,” Avivah Zornberg once commented.) We stop the rhythm of our normal days for holidays — for celebrations as well as commemorations. Our lives unfold on an axis of personal time–our jobs, our needs and wants, and the needs and wants of those we love–but always against a backdrop of sacred time. We move not just at our own pace, because with every step we take we are pulling along behind us thousands of years of Jewish history, like a cumbersome bag of oddly-shaped objects which is constantly bumping against our heels. As Jews, we cannot move forwards without looking back at what we are carrying along behind us, and occasionally even sitting down on a bench for a while to open the bag and examine one or another of its contents.
When the siren goes off for Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron, I remember what it means to live simultaneously in personal and sacred time. I want to keep going about my daily business, but instead I stop and attune myself to the sacred rhythm in the streets and shops all around me. When I open my mind in this way, I am flooded with memories that are not just my own. I think of the Holocaust survivor I visited last week who told us about her beloved brother whose identity card photo, which is all she has left to remind her of him, hangs over her sickbed in a moshav north of Tel Aviv; I think about the soles of shoes I saw at Yad Vashem, which the Nazis had made from pieces of Torah scrolls; I think about the mother of a good friend who came to Israel as one of the 1700 Jews who left Hungary in 1944 on Kastner’s train. In these moments of reflection, I would like to believe that the world can be repaired also when we only stand and wait. And if those two minutes sometimes feel like an eternity, I tell myself that perhaps this is because they bring us ever closer–as individuals, and as a people–to the Eternal.