This Memorial Day I didn’t go anywhere or do anything special. I asked a family member from Israel what she did, and she said that she stayed home, too. “A lot of people go out and celebrate around here,” I said. And she replied that it was strange that Americans celebrate the fact that other people died for them. “Isn’t there a memorial day in Israel?” I asked. “Yes, but people don’t celebrate it by having a picnic. They don’t celebrate it at all.” “What do they do?” “They stay home and think about the people who sacrificed their lives for them.”
I wonder if that’s really true. Or is it only true about people who have had a family member who has died in battle? I know for a fact that there are bitter conflicts between people who have lost someone and those who haven’t. They say that until you have lost a family member in a war, you really can’t know how that feels, and you have no right to talk about it or to speculate.
Be that as it may, I do think that there is a difference in attitude toward patriotism and how we honor the fallen between the U.S. I know and the Israel I used to know. For instance, American patriotic songs are seldom about people who die in battle. They are about love of country, but not about getting killed. At least, I can’t remember any American popular song about that subject. But there are many, many Israeli songs about that. Take for instance, the song בערבות הנגב
What is this song about? It is about a young soldier who has just been killed in the Negev and how his mother feels about it, and about how another young man offers to take the fallen son’s place. It used to be a very popular song, and people sang all the verses. But with time, newer recordings only carry a fraction of the old verses, and people seem to enjoy it more for the melody than the words. They value the feelings it evokes, but they feel a little uncomfortable about the thoughts that go with those feelings.
Because it’s so hard to find a recording with all the words these days, older people who like the words resort to playing records on a record player and then making a video of the phonograph playing, as the gentleman in this video did.
If you would like to see all the words in Hebrew, you can read them here. If on the other hand you would like to read my English translation, you can find it on the Inverted-A Press site. My translation is not word for word. Instead it is equimetrical, so you can sing it. Also, some words are hard to translate. Maybe literally the title should have been “The Steppes of the Negev”, but steppes isn’t in my active vocabulary, and adding the definite article would have ruined the meter. For purposes of this discussion, however, the verses in English will do.
When a mother mourns her fallen son, is this a personal grief, the same kind of grief she would have experienced if he’d died in a natural disaster or of a disease? Or is it a public grief, because he was serving his country?
Consider what she says:
“My eldest child I buried in the deep blue sea
“And then I raised you up, son, to keep our people free.
“They will never break us, in agony and thrall,
“They won’t uproot and take us, son, despite it all.”
The mothers who have lost their sons in battle that I know don’t say such public minded things. They say instead: “Why my son? Why not some other woman’s son? It’s not fair!”
This is the place where patriotism tends to break down, and these are the verses that people no longer sing. And here is where it gets even weirder: another soldier tries to comfort her and to take her son’s place.
Then a tall youth forward marched and made reply:
“Mother,” said he, “Please don’t… There’s no need to cry.
“Our boys are at your service, obeying your appeal.
“Against all those who hate us, we’re a wall of steel.
“Against bloodthirsty robbers and kings with hostile guns,
“Let me serve you, mother, let me be your son.”
In the plains of Negev, he went and shook her hand,
No, it’s not a legend, if you want, my friends.
Do you think it would be very comforting to be offered this kind of consolation for the loss of a son? Did she miss her son because he was her only defense against the enemy? Or did she miss him because she loved the person that he was?
Please understand: I love this song. So do a lot of other people. But because we are confused about the content of the words, we all tend to hum the melody, but leave out most of the verses. Were there ever such patriotic mothers as depicted in this song? Maybe in Rome or in Sparta. Do women today bring up sons to protect the motherland? Do they think: oh, good, a baby boy! He will be a mighty warrior some day!
In this day and age, people are embarrassed by the emotions that this poem conveys. They don’t mind at all singing about romantic love, but they feel that patriotism is too cloying. So I’ve heard a lot of new songs about people who are dating other people, but none about mothers who are raising their children to protect the freedom of their nation.
One of the most poignant parts of the poem is in the next to the last line, where the other youth steps forward to actually touch the mother. He has promised to protect her and to be another son to her. But does he hug her? No, because that would be too personal. So he just shakes her hand!
Songs that are this emotional and at the same time this impersonal are hard to find today. In Israel people still remember those thoughts and those feelings, even though they may no longer identify. But in the United States, I don’t think this kind of thinking was ever part of the culture. Which is why Memorial Day is celebrated, rather than being merely endured.
© 2011 Aya Katz