Israel's Independence Day is actually celebrated over two days. On the first day we remember all the fallen soldiers who died since Israel declared its first independence in 1948. Officially it is called the 'Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of the Wars of Israel and Victims of Actions of Terrorism'.
This day is somber and sad and I always cry my eyes out when the stories of the fallen soldiers are shown on television. There are wreath-laying ceremonies all over the county and every Israeli stands quietly when sirens ring throughout the country to acknowledge their sacrifice.
The second day is PARTY time! Just about everyone is either having a barbeque or picnic or going to the beach. The fun is however bittersweet. The sadness of the previous day and the human cost of living in a Jewish country cast a deep shadow throughout the day.
When and where are the torches lit?
The end of the first day and the start of the second day is bridged by a large and serious ceremony held at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem. There are lots of political and military dignitaries but luckily they do not make speeches.
The taps are played for the fallen soldiers and one of those weird group dances you see at serious ceremonies are danced. And then, as the day turns into night, it's time for the torch-lighting ceremony!
How many torches are lit?
Twelve (sometimes more) regular Israelis light twelve torches that represent the twelve tribes of Israel. The chosen twelve have all contributed in some way to the people of Israel. They give a small speech about themselves and their work and then light one of the torches ending with these words: "...and to the glory of the land of Israel!"
Who can light the torches
The organizers make very sure to give this honour to a wide variety of people. There will always be someone to represent the various religious minorities and Jewish ethnicities living in Israel.
Anyone can nominate a person to go and light one of the torches on Israel's Independence day. The only criteria is that they have either done something cool to help other people or have undergone something extraordinary.
This year there were a few doctors, nurses and hospital administrators who went beyond their duty to help people during the pandemic. A Muslim Arab male nurse recited the Shema prayer for a religious Jewish man dying of Covid.
Sometimes two people light one torch together. Two women, Shira Isakov and Adi Guzi, were given that honour. Shira was attacked and nearly killed. Adi, the neighbour, risked her life to save Shira. Shira's husband has been indicted in the attack.
We also saw one of the youngest and oldest torch-lighters this year. The grandparents' generations were represented by Yaish Giat, a 102 year old religious teacher and spiritual mentor.
The 18-year-old is Ofri Butbul who volunteers at a nonprofit organization. She saved the life of an elderly man she met through her volunteer work.
I also liked the story of the tiny Ethiopian police woman, Eden Habtenesh Tapet who organized food packages for the poor during the pandemic. She thanked many people in her speech, such as her parents and fellow policemen. I was really touched that she also mentioned the small girl she was in Ethiopia. This girl would never have dreamed that one day Eden will get the honour to represent her ethnicity and the entire police force to light a torch on Independence Day.
Some light in the dark
One would think that Israelis more or less get along with each other. We are after all surrounded by unfriendly neighbours and is often the default pariah in the world's media.
Sadly this is not so. All our various ethnic groups and religious minorities DO not get along. And every day the gap seems to get larger.
The news here is also very depressing. It is either about people getting killed, incoming missiles, signs of a looming war or incompetent politicians. (We have voted four times in the last two years because our politicians cannot work together).
So it is a wonderful change to have all the attention on good news for one evening in the year. The torch lighting ceremony highlights(!) the good deeds of ordinary citizens. People who went out of their way to help, save or uplift another.
One evening a year, we all sit in front of our screens and get teary-eyed for happy reasons for a change.
We repeat the words "the glory of the land of Israel" together with the torch lighters and for a few minutes we to revel in the beauty of human nature.
And then the next day, on Independence Day, it is back to the reality of life in Israel. We curse again the people who cannot park properly or light up a cigarette right next to us.