Opinion

Our broken places

On Memorial Day, we pay respects to our brokenness, and on Independence Day, we celebrate that it has made us strong.

Soldiers place flags on the graves of fallen comrades at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, April 23, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Soldiers place flags on the graves of fallen comrades at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, April 23, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

“The world breaks everyone,” Ernest Hemingway wrote, “and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

Hemingway was neither a Jew nor an Israeli, but when he wrote this, he might as well have been. Perhaps no people and no nation has been broken as many times as we have, and we have grown strong in the broken places, but we also know, with terrible intimacy, that the world kills the very good and very gentle and very brave impartially.

On Monday evening, Israel will pay its respects to that brokenness. Our Memorial Day allows us to mark each of our very good and very gentle and very brave that the world has killed, and to bow our heads as sirens blare, reminding us that these fractures are eternal. They are the price, the terrible price, we have paid to be free.

In those moments, we do not think about whether it was a price worth paying. That does not matter. What matters is to honor those who paid it and to lament the world that forced them to do so.

As we go to the cemeteries and light our candles, we also remind ourselves that we broke with them. Perhaps we know in those moments that we had no choice, because the world kills those who do not break, and if there is one principle that has sustained the Jewish people throughout our long and bloody history, it is to survive, survive at all costs, defy the evil world by continuing to be.

In Israel, this is a way of being in the world. Not only because of history, but because in a country as small as ours the world does indeed break everyone. On Memorial Day, we are reminded that everyone has lost someone or knows someone who has lost someone. There is not a house in which there has been no death.

For me, the broken place is a professor with whom I studied at Ben-Gurion University named Michael Feige. He was a kind and compassionate teacher who took pity on a young man who barely spoke Hebrew at the time and indulged my halting attempts at pursuing a degree in that language. Without him and other academics like him, I could not have succeeded.

Some years after I graduated, he was murdered in a shooting attack. Because our Memorial Day also honors victims of terror, each year I go to the IDF website and light a virtual candle in his memory. I lament the loss of yet another life, another world, another brilliant mind, another human being, another Jew.

And I wonder what more the world wants from us. How many more lives? I want to ask. How much more blood? Haven’t you had enough? Give us a number, you fetid cannibals, so we will at least know when it will be over.

And no answer comes.

Then Memorial Day passes and, instantly, Independence Day begins, with its joyous celebrations, fireworks displays, children racing through the streets spraying shaving cream at passersby, and the ubiquitous happiness at the miracle of our resurrection and liberation.

Some believe this is ill-advised. That there should be at least a day added between the two holidays. That the sudden transition from mourning to joy is too abrupt and even disrespectful to the grieving and the dead.

There is something to this. But in a certain way, this suddenness sends an important message to us and to the world: Israel exists because the Jewish people defied an evil world, not only by founding a Jewish state but by surviving centuries of everything that world could throw at us, even the worst crimes in human history.

Our lamentation shows the world that it may do its evil deeds, it may break us again and again, but we know that the world breaks everyone and that the strong are not those who never break.

Then our joy reminds us that from this momentary breakage comes the right to celebrate that, despite all of this, despite the best efforts of the world, we have grown strong in the broken places. It is us saying: We will win, we will defy you, we will defeat you, we will break you, but there will be no special hurry.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein. His books can be purchased here.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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