Is Grief a Communal or a Personal Affair?

Tensions exist between national observance and private remembrance on Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Memorial Day.

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Mourning as a Nation

The "nationalization" of death and mourning is not an easy matter. Many families of fallen soldiers still feel uncomfortable about strangers and "the multitude" appropriating their loss. The sadness of the masses can never approach the pain the families feel. This discomfort is intensified by the immediate transition into Independence Day and celebration marked by levity.

As one mother said recently: "We never celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut because we are still recovering from Yom Hazikaron. Joining the days leaves us feeling that many are waiting for Yom Hazikaron to end, so they can go celebrate, which takes away from the respect and meaning of Yom Hazikaron. It leaves the impression of, 'Well, we did our duty and can forget it for another year'."

Yet the indications are that the public has, over the years, begun to internalize the individual deaths of thousands into a communal sense of grief/gratitude and the need to express it. On the public level Yom Hazikaron is most deeply felt in the school system, where students and teachers take part in ceremonies and not just for the two minutes during which the siren sounds. Such exposure does have an educational purpose--to create a collective memory, so to speak, and it has helped integrate the children of immigrants into Israeli society in the past and will continue to do so with the recent immigrant populations (Russian and Ethiopian).

Mourning as Individuals

Remembrance Day began as an appendage to Independence Day, with lesser status in both law and the emotions, except, of course, for those personally affected. Over time an interesting process has taken place. Independence Day has lost much of its poignancy. The large majority of Israelis today were born after the state was established; for them it is taken for granted, a sign of national maturity or "normalcy" to some extent.

Individualism is currently more "in" in Israel than nationalism, as is true in much of the Western world, which also weakens the holiday's force. Yom Hazikaron, on the other hand, has deepened its roots in the public mind. Except for certain specific groups (the haredim, Arabs, etc.) the population as a whole identifies more with the day than it did in the early years. The media have even extended beyond the statutory hours their "serious, appropriate" broadcasting, with personal stories, historical accounts, and discussions. More than half a century into statehood, the fact that Israel still is actively engaged in defending itself and its soldiers and civilians are still being killed and wounded fortifies the communal feeling.


The observance of personal mourning in Judaism lasts for one year, at most. Even the most emotional of persons looses the need or ability, over time, to weep for lost loved ones. Communal mourning is another matter. The Jewish people still grieves for the loss of Jerusalem on Tisha B'Av, almost 2,000 years after the events, even after the rebuilding of the Jewish state. We sit on low benches and remove our shoes as mourners for an event none of us were present at. Communal grief takes over when the community identifies in a fundamental way with the personal losses of its members, even after their personal mourners are no longer around. It is too early to know if Remembrance Day will assume such a place in the spirit of the Jewish people, though conceivably that could happen.

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Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb

Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, director of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, is a graduate of Harvard College, Columbia Law School, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He has lived in Israel since 1976, where he worked as lawyer for the government and then in private practice. He joined the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem in 2000 and teaches Jewish liturgy there.