Where the Personal and the Public Intersect: Memorial Day Musings

A picture from the Negev (from the Wikipedia)

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

About Aya Katz

Aya Katz is the administrator of Pubwages. When she is not busy administering, she sometimes also writes posts like a regular user.
This entry was posted in Music, Musical Styles, Opinion Pieces and Editorials and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Where the Personal and the Public Intersect: Memorial Day Musings

  1. Nets says:


    I can only respond to this with my equimetrical translation of a couplet
    from Schlonsky’s Rumplestiltskin:

    Be fruitful: multiply because
    It helps defend the land of Oz.

    (This is what the minister of the palace suggested that the king write
    in a note to the woman who had triplets.)


  2. Sweetbearies says:

    Originally Memorial Day started around the Civil War with mothers mourning their sons, and putting flowers on their graves. Like most holidays in the US, I think people just use the day as an excuse to barbeque, or go shopping. Not that this is good or bad either way, it is just how culture evolved. I personally do not want to go anywhere shopping on major holidays because I hate the crowds. My grandpas and some of the older men I know who served in World War II were big on observing the loses of their comrades on days like this. Another reason I think people do not really observe Memorial Day the way they once did has to do with the cultural changes that happened in the US since the Vietnam War. It was such an unpopular war and the first time that young people openly and widely spoke out against the actions of their government, and much of the younger generation changed their ideas about patriotism after this. Of course there are still people who are observant of days like Memorial Day, but I myself have mixed feelings about it. I mourn people who die in war, but have never been completely comfortable with the idea of a holiday glorifying this. In the end I think Americans just use the holiday to hang out with no deep feelings behind it anymore.

    • Aya Katz says:

      I had read about Memorial Day being started to mourn the fallen in the Civil War. What I am not really clear on with regard to that is: does it mean the fallen on both sides? And if so, when the holiday was extended to other wars, do we mourn the enemy’s fallen heroes as well?

      I am not against war. I recognize that it is a necessary part of life, although it would be best to engage in it only when there is no better way, and I think it should be privately funded and privately run.

      But the rhetoric that one hears about sacrifice is troubling to me, especially when it sounds so similar to religious statements about sacrifice on the cross. People should not be sacrificed to the greater good against their will. Heroes who die in battle should be there willingly, and it is their valor and not their sacrifice that should be celebrated.

  3. Sweetbearies says:

    Honestly, I think all of the admiration of war heroes is one sided. During the Civil War it was about the north commemorating their loss, but the Confederacy. Later I heard accounts of Confederates and Union veterans getting together and embracing after recalling the horrific events of the Civil War. The trench warfare was quite bad towards the end, and some very shocking pictures of young teens who died in this war. I am troubled a bit by people being sacrificed for a society if they do not want to, and I think some of this is tied into religion since so many wars of the past were about that. Even now we have military chaplains. I probably detest war more than some, and yes it is necessary, but today it feels like it is glorified. However, a lot of the people doing the glorification of war would not go off themselves and fight.

  4. Sweetbearies says:

    However, on a positive note, I do feel Pearl Harbor is evidence of how two cultures can fight, and then later come together. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, but seventy years later a large number of the tourists who come to Pearl Harbor are Japanese. I think they come out of curiosity, and also some seem to realize war can be costly, and that eventually there is a time to heal two countries need to put animosities aside. I know when I was a kid I encountered a lot of latent Japan bashing from people who had served in World War II, and had strong antipathy towards anything made in Japan. This seems to have subsided a bit now that younger generations in the US and Japan are coming of age, and no longer have these issues. I have also heard stories of the Japanese veterans who are friends with American veterans. The Japanese may have been aggressors in World War II, but they seem to have weathered being an occupied country and a reduced military power quite gracefully. I do not feel Europeans were able to do so up until the last century, especially since so many battles would continue between the English and the French, and The French and the Germans. Many over wrongs that some seem to have never disposed of, and religion of course.

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