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Writing Jewish Characters: Modern Spring Holidays

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

In this episode of “Writing Jewish Characters,” I’ll be discussing what I call the four modern Jewish spring holidays - Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, Yom HaAtzmaut, and Yom Yerushalayim.

These four holidays were all established in Israel (though two of them are observed in at least some form by many other Jews) between 1948 and 1968 - which is why I call them the modern holidays.

These are all very minor holidays. The “no work” rules (see this post) do not apply.

Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day

While there is an International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th, it was not established until 2005. The Israeli “holiday,” which was established in 1953, is therefore the one that is more likely to be celebrated by Jews, particularly non-Orthodox Jews, worldwide. Many Orthodox Jews prefer to treat Nissan as a month of celebration, and mourn instead on Tisha B’Av and other fast days, which are traditionally days of commemoration.

Yom HaShoah falls on the 27th of Nissan, which can range from April 7th to May 5th - not quite a week after Passover. This observance was intentionally placed close to Passover, because of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. No one was comfortable using the exact date, as it’s the day before Passover and that would make Passover even more complicated, so they put it after - but still before Israel’s Independence Day (see below), as the Holocaust was in many ways the defining event that led to Israeli Independence.

This is a day of remembrance, not celebration. While schools and offices don’t close, there will often be ceremonies to remember the Holocaust. Candles/torches are lit to remember the six million Jewish victims. Prayers of remembrance are said in synagogues.

At ten a.m. Israeli time, a siren sounds through the entire country and literally everything comes to a standstill for two minutes while everyone remembers. This includes traffic.

In America, a variety of things happen, most along the same line as the Israeli commemorations, though without the siren. A more recent tradition is the name recitation, in which synagogues and other groups get together to recite victims’ names throughout the entire day, from sunset to sunset.

Because of all of these interactions, an American Jewish character is actually most likely to observe this day if they’re of about middling levels of observance or in a group where this is active - for example, if they’re involved in a Jewish group at their college or an active member of a Reform or Conservative synagogue. They’ll also more likely note it if they had relatives who died in the Holocaust.

For modern characters, these will not be close relatives. Because the Holocaust ended over 70 years ago, you’re looking at pretty distant - most commonly, great-grandparents and great-aunts and great-uncles. But many of our grandparents were survivors, so it’s still immediate. That will be different in the future, and it’s a bit of a crisis in the Jewish community right now - that soon, there will be no one left who remembers the Holocaust first-hand.

Yom HaZikaron - Israel’s Memorial Day

Established in 1953, Yom HaZikaron falls on the 4th of Iyar, which can range from April 14th to May 11th. Originally, this day was part of Israel’s Independence Day, but it was decided to make that a happy day and separate this one out, which is why it’s the day before Independence Day - and also to go through the cost before you get to the happiness.

Basically, this day is for remembering soldiers who died in Israel’s various wars for independence and autonomy - it’s Israel’s Memorial Day.

Memorial candles are lit, flags are lowered to half-staff, and there’s memorial ceremonies.

Like with Yom HaShoah, there’s a two minute siren of silence, which is at 11 a.m. Israeli time.

If your character is American, they will almost certainly not notice this date unless they’re working for a Jewish organization, preferably one that does a lot of work with Israel.

Yom HaAtzmaut - Israel’s Independence Day

This holiday, along with the following, are fairly political. I’m going to stick to basic facts.

As the name suggests, Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, is the day Israel declared independence in 1948. Being Israel, this holiday falls on the Hebrew date, which is the 5th of Iyar, and can fall between April 15th and May 12th.

Much like July 4th in the US or any other independence day, this holiday is about celebration. There’s parades and all that sort of thing, as well as fireworks and picnics and barbecues.

Unlike the rest of the days discussed in this post, this celebration has the official status of a minor holiday (similar to Purim or Hanukkah). Certain prayers are added to morning services and the Torah is read. As you might expect, this celebration only applies to most Jews, but not all. Some less-mainstream branches of Orthodox Jews believe that Israel should not have become an official state until the Messiah actually showed up, so they mourn on this day instead.

This holiday is celebrated by non-Israeli Jews, but generally only in Jewish schools, synagogues, and Jewish organizations. If your character works/attends someplace like this, it may come up.

Not technically a part of Yom HaAtzmaut, but something I associate with it, is the Celebrate Israel Parade, which happens in NYC in the spring. The Jewish school I attended used to march, and so do various other Jewish groups.

Yom Yerushalayim - Jerusalem Day

The most recent of the holidays listed here, Yom Yerushalayim was established in 1968, in the aftermath of the Six Day War. It falls on the 28th of Iyar, which can fall between May 7th and June 6th. It celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem in that war.

It’s celebrated festively, but not widely. Your non-Israeli characters will almost certainly not bother with this day.

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