Today is Yom HaZikaron (Israel's Remembrance Day) and it feels different than any other Yom HaZikaron now that I am a soldier. It feels different because the people who I saw at the Haifa Military Cemetery were coming to commemorate me. Well, not exactly me, but rather young men and women who were in my exact same position and place in life yet did not get to grow up. It's hard seeing a mother and father standing by there son's grave; it goes against the natural progression of nature. In the Paratroopers Brigade, there is a tradition that on every Remembrance Day a paratrooper will stand beside the grave a fallen paratrooper. Yitzhak Berkowitz was born in 1950 and grew up on a Moshav near Haifa. He liked sports, especially soccer and table-tennis. He was a modest and loyal guy who gave his all in everything that he did. He got along with everybody he came in contact with. When he worked in the fields of his Moshav he also befriended many of the Arab workers. Yitzhak went to the army in 1968 and became a medic in the paratroopers. His cousin, who was at the ceremony today, told me that he was a real "gever" or "good guy" in colloquial terms. His cousin also told me that Yitzhak was always the first to volunteer and a leader, therefore explaining why he absorbed the brunt of the enemy's bullets when he and his fellow soldiers were ambushed by a group of terrorists. He was 19 when he was buried. Yitzhak's brother was at the memorial as well. He arrived at 10 am, about an hour before the ceremony started, with a tired look on his face. He's been mourning his brother's death for about 31 years now but it doesn't look like time has healed his scars. He shook my hand and I introduced myself and told him that I was the representative from the Paratroopers Brigade. He nodded and proceeded to put the flowers in the vase already sitting on the grave from years passed. He then opened up the bottled water and poured it in the vase in the most routine fashion as if he did this every week. I can't imagine what it would be like to have to bury your younger brother and then go back to his grave every year for the rest of your life. I looked around the cemetery to scope out the scene. There were a lot of soldiers who, like me, were there to stand by the graves of the fallen. The families there were a diverse mix of all ages and backgrounds. In the row behind me, 6 graves to the right, an elderly woman of probably about 75 sat on a stool, alone, with a sort of dazed and pained expression on her face. She looked like she hadn't slept well for many years. About 2 rows back and 3 graves to the left sat an elderly couple of about 80 who were crying and hugging each other. The closest description I could attribute to their cry was a cry of despair. I don't think they wanted to cry but there wasn't so much they could do when the familiar siren started wailing. Occasionally I saw kids and teenagers with their whole families gathered around the grave. For the most part, the families kept it together a little bit better than the lone mourners. Perhaps they kept it together because the parents don't want to give the impression to the kids that their family fell apart. People's reactions to the memorial were wide-ranging as well. Some people cried. Some people looked away. Some people tried to be emotionless while others embraced those around them and sobbed helplessly. After Hatikvah was sung and the ceremony ended, people started to leave. The skinny middle aged man at the beginning of the row I was standing in took out a Marlboro cigarette and lit it up as he made his way toward the exit. Yitzhak's cousin stayed a couple minutes to reminisce about his army days. The weeping elderly couple continued crying but started to gather their things to make their way home. On the way out things had more or less returned to their normal state and everyone was going about their lives as usual.
It's important to remember the people that were there today and the loss they have had to deal with. It puts my woes and miseries in perspective. Of course it's difficult when at 5 am I'm standing outside in shorts and a t-shirt waiting for my commander to come yell at us and then start our hassled and stressful morning routine. It's hard when we're on one of our marches and my shins are beginning to burn and my lower back feels like a car being crunched in a junkyard compressor. It's hard when I come home on Friday and I'm exhausted from the week's endless lessons and exercises but I have to take my laundry up to the laundry room and do groceries. But nothing is as hard as what Yitzhak's family and all the other fallen soldiers' families have to go through when they think about what a huge part of their family was taken from them and how he or she will never come back. All of the fallen soldiers that were honored today are the reason why their is a Jewish State that I and others can fight to defend and their sacrifice is holy. Zichronam Livrecha.