Read our member Jan Lee’s article at the JNS on May, 11 2024.

The resounding importance of Yom Hazikaron

Israel’s Day of Remembrance has significance for us all, even Diaspora Jews.

An Israeli soldier places flags around the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem ahead of Yom Hazikaron, May 8, 2024. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

An Israeli soldier places flags around the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem ahead of Yom Hazikaron, May 8, 2024. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

This year, more than most, Jews internationally need to commemorate Yom Hazikaron.

Israel’s Day of Remembrance was created more than 70 years ago with a unique purpose, which was to honor soldiers and civilian fighters killed during the efforts to establish its nationhood. But in recent years, it has taken on an additional role: to acknowledge the mounting numbers of citizens murdered during terrorist attacks on Israeli soil.

But this year’s memorial has another, often overlooked significance. This year marks a half-century since the terrorist attack in the northern city of Kiryat Shmona when 18 civilians, largely immigrants, were murdered in their homes. Eight of the victims were children in their apartments during the Passover holidays. The massacre and the terror attacks that followed during the next few months that year became front-page news in international media, forcing the U.N. Security Council to intervene and call for a buffer zone on Lebanon’s southern border. According to U.N. Security Council records from April 1974, Israel’s efforts to persuade the United Nations to hold both Lebanon and the Palestinian Liberation Organization accountable for the cross-border attack were rebuffed. U.N. peacekeeping troops were established briefly on the border, but Lebanon refused to assume responsibility to stop terrorists from crossing into Israel.

I was in Kiryat Shmona a half-hour before the attack that morning. I was waiting for a bus to Jerusalem, where I planned to spend the rest of the Passover holiday. The bus left filled with travelers, including residents from the apartment building that had been targeted. Egged buses in those days were equipped with a portable radio that in the best of times was hard to hear over the chatter of riders. But when the emergency broadcast came on, panic ensued. Passengers began pleading with the driver to turn the bus around and head back to Kiryat Shmona so they could check on their families. The bus was eventually flagged and pulled over by a supervisor, who confirmed the news. The city had already been cordoned off by Israel Defense Forces, and the driver was ordered to continue on to Jerusalem.

It was a searing experience to step off a bus crammed with families and solitary travelers, knowing that some had survived a terrorist attack because they were on a shopping trip instead of at home. And worse, that they might not find out the fate of their families until they returned home. But the image I think of every Yom Hazikaron is that of the young Russian immigrant from Kiryat Shmona sitting next to me, whose tears were reflected in the window pane next to her. She had confessed to me a few minutes earlier that she was still learning conversational Hebrew. Apparently, she knew enough to understand the worst of the news broadcast.

Public memorials like Hazikaron help us heal. But they also serve as a way to register and reflect public unity and sentiment about compelling issues. And sometimes, when our representatives listen hard enough, response to those memorials can inspire action.

Perhaps Israel’s decision last year to enact a policy that recognizes the worldwide victims of antisemitism was prescient of the increasing need for global action against terrorism. It’s an uncomfortable thought. But if Israel is going to overcome the greatest threat to its safety, it won’t just come from within—from the yearly sirens that mark its losses or from its incessant efforts to inspire the United Nations to finally support its side of disputes. It will also come from those of us in the Diaspora, who know all too well the importance of a Jewish homeland.

Jan Lee. Credit: Courtesy.
Jan Lee is an award-winning editorial writer and former news editor. Her articles and op-eds have been published in a variety of Jewish and travel publications, including the Baltimore Jewish Times, B’nai B’rith Magazine, Jewish Independent and The Times of Israel.

For those who missed Peter Sarganis talk, last Shabbat Morning (May 4), during the sermon time, here it is:
Chai: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
An Art Talk by Panagiotis Peter Sarganis
Congregation Beth Israel
26 Nisan 5784 (May 4th, 2024)
To quote one of our students from her speech at this year’s Visual Art Grad Exhibition:
“If I sound nervous… it’s because I am.” I might sound nervous too… because I am.
Not the regular nervous I feel when I speak in front of an audience. That is a nervous
usually filled with excitement. I have spoken several times right here on this Bimah.
Nervous… but excited. I have done numerous art-related talks. Nervous… but excited.
I am used to that type of nervous. Today, however, it feels different. A nervous filled with dread. One that has me
wishing… just a little… that I had declined Rabbi Infeld’s invitation to speak in front of
you. The last six months have left me feeling raw and vulnerable. And speaking today
is making me feel a little exposed.
I did not grow up a Jew. In Montreal, I lived near, went to school with, and became
friends with many… but I had a Pappou and Yiayia on the Greek side of my family, and
a Pépère and Mémère on the French-Canadian side. No Zayde and no Bubbe. I did
not grow up a Jew with stories of parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts facing
antisemitism; living in ghettos; surviving the Holocaust… or not.
As a Jew by choice the last six months have introduced me to a way of being alien to
anything my mind, body, and soul have experienced before. Yes, the last six months
have left me feeling raw and vulnerable, frightened and quite exhausted. I would be
lying if I said there wasn’t some dread about speaking here today.
This art project, however, did not start this way. At our initial Pesach Committee
meeting, when Rabbi Infeld suggested that an artwork be created to echo this year’s
Seder theme entitled “Let My People Go” I was eager to commit.
Fuelled by my passion for painting, and my love of Judaism, I began to reflect on the
months since October 7th.
“What about this?” I wondered.
“No, too conceptual.”
“How about…?”
“Hmm, too political.”
My search for an idea that felt right was not an easy one until I decided to take the
advice that I often give my students. Don’t look too hard for the answer. Be honest and
the idea will probably find you. And with the help of Rabbi Infeld this art piece started to
I am a portrait painter. I see my role as a portrait painter like that of a biographer, and in
this tradition, I try to share people’s stories by depicting their wrinkles and scars.
Wrinkles, a telltale sign that they’ve been here a while, and their scars that often have
interesting memories to share.
I learned a not so funny thing about my mother by painting her portrait. As I was
scrutinizing over the visual information the reference photo offered, I noticed that one
corner of her mouth was a tiny bit lower than the opposite corner. I had never noticed
this before. It looked so cute. On one of our long-distance Vancouver to Montreal phone
calls I informed her of my discovery. After an uncomfortable silence… she confessed
that to keep me from worrying she avoided telling me that she had… quote/unquote…
just a little stroke.
Yes, faces tell interesting stories. So, through discussions with Rabbi Infeld the
uncomfortable task of painting portraits depicting the hostages came to be. I am not
unfamiliar with uncomfortable painting tasks; in fact, I often prefer them to simple ones.
I have done a series of eighteen paintings of my father using a series of photographs
that I took just a month after he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. For
Remembrance Day of 2009 I guided my art students through the process of painting
portraits of all the Canadian soldiers who died that year in Afghanistan. These paintings
are now part of the the Canadian War Museum’s permanent collection in Ottawa.
So, this was going to be easy… familiar… nothing I hadn’t done before. Just wrinkles
and scars that tell interesting stories.
While painting 9-month-old Kfir Bibas, the youngest hostage taken by Hamas on
October 7th, it quickly became evident that this was a face yet to be marked by the
element of time… of a life not yet lived… of experiences yet to be remembered. Devoid
of the scars and wrinkles that usually anchor my paintings I quickly became
uncomfortably emotional. Sadness, anger, resentment, hope. These all became
intertwined into a mess of emotions more than I had bargained for when I first accepted
Rabbi Infeld’s challenge to paint hostages.
I stared at the image of that 9-month-old’s face for many hours. His smile made me
smile. His smile made me cry. A smile, not just with his mouth, but with his eyes too. I
think it is obvious that someone who loves him dearly was on the other side of that
camera lens… and Kfir knows this. I have never met Kfir, but the reference photo I
used to paint him seems all too familiar. It is not much different than the baby photos of
my own children smiling back through the glass frames hanging on our walls.
Many were taken hostage… far too many to paint in the time I had, so I decided to
select just two who would become the unfortunate representatives for all the hostages.
Nine-month-old Kfir was the youngest… so I decided that the second portrait should be
of the oldest.
Eighty-five-year-old Iraqi-born Shlomo Mansour, a grandfather of 12, was also
kidnapped on October 7th, while Mazal, his wife of 60 years, miraculously escaped.
Shlomo also smiles with his eyes. It seems obvious that someone he loves was on the
other side of the camera lens too. On March 17th, his family marked his birthday by
asking the public to eat ice cream in his honour. He loved ice cream. His favorite
flavour, pistachio.
So, I painted Kfir, the youngest, and Shlomo, the oldest. But what about the rest of the
hostages? This art piece is made up of three panels. The centre panel consists of
beautifully patterned papers that make a grid totalling 324 squares. Within these 324
squares the rest of the hostages are represented. 324… 18 by 18. I have been
fascinated by the number 18 ever since I learned that it represents life.
Earlier I spoke of the 18 paintings I did of my father. For the two years before
succumbing to lung cancer my father chose to live… right up until his last physical act in
August of 2011, when he leaned forward to hug his grandchildren.
“Chai” is what I’ve decided to call this art piece of the hostages. In the face of very
desperate times, we must choose life. In the face of a difficult world, where some
people feel it is appropriate to rip pictures off lamp posts and walls… pictures simply
asking that we bring a 9-month-old baby and 85-year-old ice-cream loving grandfather
back home… we must continue to choose life.
Rabbi, a few weeks ago you spoke of how Leonard Cohen went into a war zone armed
with just his guitar and voice to bring music into a dark situation… thank you for offering
me the opportunity to express my voice in the way I know best…through my paint and
brushes. And despite any dread I felt speaking to you today, I feel honoured to have
been asked.
Shabbat Shalom