Why George didn’t stand for the siren

One of the most important days In Israel is today: Yom HaShoah. The day we commemorate the Holocaust.

And one of the most terrible sounds in the whole world is the siren on Yom HaShoah. It’s the sound of every mother and daughter and father and son, every sister and brother and lover and friend screaming from that miserable maw of humanity, that sound mixed down into one keening wail.

But one of the most moving sites in the whole world is what happens in Israel during the siren on Yom HaShoah. The entire country grinds to a halt.

We put aside the grievances, the stress. Coffee cups are placed down mid-sip. Arguments end mid-sentence. A joke breaks at the punchline. Even the children stop playing, their bodies eerily still on the playground, stiller than the trees that grow deep into the ground, branches swaying against the sky. Every car pulls to the side of the road. And we stand. Together.

And every year I want to be where I don’t just hear it, but I see it.

So I can feel.

Last year, I stood in a cafe, and I stood with everyone, because everyone stood, and while the siren blared, the cappuccino machine hissed because you don’t turn off the machine when the siren stops — you just stop. You stop and you stand, and nothing matters but those terrible moments when you’re hearing that sound, shaken: you remember.

The year before I was near a highway — and from the high up windows, I looked down, and saw each and every car pull to the side of the road, and the doors open, and each driver and each passenger, stand straight and silent. I remember crying when I saw that. Israelis never agree on anything – and yet, on Yom HaShoah we move as one.

This year I went to Jaffa Gate.

I’m living in the Old City working on a book about the people here – and I was curious to see what would happen in an area where both Palestinians and Israelis share space – if not conversation.

And Jaffa Gate is that nexus point. It’s the gate facing west, over the hills and forests, across the fields and to the sea — Back in the day if you walked out of Jaffa Gate and headed in a straight line, you would hit the port city of Jaffa where the waves crash on the rocks and merchants and pilgrims would arrive seasick and weary to take the road back again to Jerusalem.
It’s the entrance to the Christian Quarter — but if you turn right, you’ll hit the Armenian Quarter, and many Jewish Israelis — both secular and observant — use it as an entry point, too … Muslims as well. There are souvenir shops run by Palestinian guys who sell yarmulkes and IDF t-shirts, next to a place run by this Greek Orthodox guy who sells crosses and icons. Just around the corner is a place with gorgeous Armenian pottery. It’s the gate where the roads really meet.

And I know a lot of the people hanging out there – Like Zaki who sells bread, and Ali the cop from Daliat el-Carmel, and George who plays motown’s greatest hits and sells pomegranate juice, and all the soldiers who keep changing, but who are always there.

And I wanted to be there to see what would happen, on this day when the Israel I know and live in screeches to a halt.

Who would stop?

Who wouldn’t?

How would I feel if the people I know didn’t stop?

So I waited. I sat down on the cobblestone street before the siren because I wanted to stand to be seen making that active choice to go from one way to another — from a place of easy rest, to a state of total attention.

And the siren wailed, and I stood, and I stopped, and I looked around. The soldiers stood beside me. The men in yarmulkes stood. The mother with the sheitel and the baby carriage stopped mid stop, frozen.

Four little kids with yarmulkes and peyot were running toward David Street, and they stopped, little trees rooted to the ground.

It took the tourists a minute to figure out WTF was going on – I saw them look at each other, baffled, like “oh shit, we got front row seats to the Zombie apocalypse,” but their guide explained and they stopped.

Nuns and priests wafted past me, talking.

Women in hijab, too.

The old men playing backgammon kept rolling their dice, and a taxi drove past and curved around the Tower of David.

And across the way, my friend George checked his phone, and took a picture of me standing there, a statue in means and tank top, decorated with bracelets from his cousin’s shop.

I felt a lot of things.

And I let myself feel them.

The Holocaust is part of my identity – I didn’t live it personally, but it’s in my DNA, as are thousands of years of persecution we have endured — throughout Europe, and the Middle East, and the Americans too.

My optimism comes from a history of survival. My sense of the absurd and the macabre, too. Because I am alive.

I go between the Jewish and Muslim and Christian and Armenian Quarters because after surviving all of this, I am free and strong, and I will live that way or die.

I criticize the government because we did not survive thousands of years of persecution to put up with bullshit from our own leaders. I fight for human rights and demand equality for everyone dafka because #NeverAgain cannot just be about us. It means never again for anyone else, in any gradation – from prejudice to full on persecution. No.

And the siren reminds me of all of this – and it reminds of such a great loss . A systematic, mechanised, MODERN genocide — on purpose, planned, and meticulously carried out against the Jews — as well as so many others.

And the Holocaust is bigger than Israel. It’s bigger than the Jewish people. It is a horror almost beyond reckoning, and yes: I want the world to recognize it.

And yes, I want my friends to recognize it.

So after the siren, I went up to George.

I could still hear the echo of the siren, the little hairs on the back of my neck were still standing.
“Sabah al Kheir — Good morning,” I asked him with tears in my eyes as I thought about all those people — all those millions of people — who were murdered.

He reached out, and I shook his hand.

“Sabah al noor” he answered.

I started to speak when he handed me a black coffee and said:

“Tell me something, Sarah: Why was there a siren just now?”

And a sound that was half laugh and half sob tore out of me, and my eyes filled with tears again, because really, he just didn’t know.

And a new wave of sadness washed over me because here in the place that holy to us all, where the Old City comes together, we all live in different worlds.

“Oh right!” He said.

Maybe next year he’ll remember.

Sarah Tuttle-Singer

Posted by Sarah Tuttle-Singer

Sarah climbs roofs and drinks scotch and takes pictures and writes and teaches her kids to ask questions. She is is spending a year in the old city (3 months in each quarter) where she is writing a book about her experiences and the people she meets. Sarah is a work in progress, and you can follow her on Twitter and via her Facebook Page.


Really, do you actually think he forgot? He just does not care, not at all. In fact, even worse. If his cousin bombed Beer Sheva, G-d forbid, he would keep silent. Don’t become beguiled by the coffee.

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