For many, Memorial Day is the official start of summer. For others, it is a day for barbeques and picnics. Some look forward eagerly to Memorial Day for the Indy 500 race, the Memorial Golf Tournament, fantastic shopping sales, or a great parade through their town. Many look forward to Memorial Day, but sadly, few know when it started or what it is really all about.
General John Logan officially proclaimed Memorial Day on May 5, 1868. That day, he reflected on those who gave their lives in the tragic conflict of the Civil War. He did so by placing flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1861, in response to the election of an anti-slavery Republican as President, 11 southern states that had slaves declared their intent to secede from the United States and form the Confederate States of America. The remaining 25 states supported the federal government and after four years of civil war, the Confederacy surrendered and slavery was outlawed everywhere in the nation.
More Americans died in the Civil War than in any other conflict in US history requiring the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries. In the late 1860’s, people in towns and cities across the South and the North began a springtime tradition of paying tribute to the countless fallen soldiers and honoring their memories and thus began Memorial day according to most.
And so, Memorial Day is really intended to be about exactly what its name suggests, a day to remember. This weekend we remember the thousands of US soldiers who have given their lives to defend our freedoms and to provide security for this incredible country that has been a better host to the Jewish people than any other country in history. We remember the American Revolution and the values of civil rights, human freedom, dignity and honor.
It is terribly sad, in my opinion, how neglected and distorted Memorial Day has become. The average American associates Memorial Day more with the smell of a delicious barbecue than with those that died defending our country. Just consider the contrast between the observance of our holiday and Memorial Day in Israel, Yom HaZikaron. In Israel, ceremonies are held, public television is focused on soldiers, cemeteries are visited, and the entire country comes together observing a moment of silence while the memorial siren blasts throughout the country.
We are a people that cherish memory and pledge never to forget. We recite Yizkor multiple times a year, we remember Amalek and what they attempted to do to us, we observe Yom Ha’Shoah and remember the horrors of the Holocaust, and we mark Yom Ha’Zikaron and remember the Israeli Soldiers who died on behalf of our beloved Israel. In fact, if you look in the siddur at the conclusion of Shacharis you will note the obligation to remember 6 particular things each and every day.
Indeed, we are a people all about memory. I would suggest that as proud Jewish Americans, Memorial Day be added to our calendar of meaningful observances and that unlike the masses who neglect to pause and remember, we stop to think about those that died to provide the freedom we enjoy. As Jews we acutely feel the loss of the 41 Jewish members of the US Armed Forces killed in action since 9/11 and as patriotic Americans we feel the pain of the over 6,600 families who have buried a loved one killed in action during that time.
May we achieve peace in the world so that war, fallen soldiers, and loss of life only be a part of our distant memory and not a part of our personal experience.