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Déjà vu and a Moment of Silence

by Cantor Claire Franco

One of my all time favorite articles from the New York Times is a story about déjà vu and other para-psychological phenomena You know déjà vu-the feeling that you have experienced something before even when you haven’t. The premise of the article was the scientific justification for this very non-scientific experience. Scientists in the article proposed that, in simple terms, when you are in a place and time, your body absorbs molecules: protons, ions, neutrons and electrons and holds on to them as part of your chemistry. Then, when you have a similar experience of one that evokes a similar reaction, the molecules recognize it-thus giving us the feeling of having been somewhere or having had the experience before. I am not sure where my belief fits into these theories, but I do understand what the scientists were saying.

Sometimes, when the mood is right, when I am alone and it’s quiet, I can actually FEEL myself walking in Jerusalem. It’s not just that I remember it, but I can physically FEEL it as though I am there. It’s always the same walk…down the hill from my apartment to that of my best friend. I walked it 100’s of times during the year I lived there. And when I imagine it, the feeling is as real as though I were there.

For me, as I am sure for many others, the time I lived in Israel was profound. It is difficult to articulate the spiritual awakening that I experienced there. There is an awesome sense of living in a place that is uniquely Jewish. I had grown up in a place where Jews were a small and distinct minority.

For me, Israel offered me a sense of belonging to something greater than I had ever understood. Even now, years later it fills me with emotion. I was lucky. Israel was at peace during the time that I lived there. We were able to ride on buses and eat in cafes without a care. We weren’t suspicious. We weren’t nervous. We were safe.

One of the most powerful and moving moments of my time in Israel lasted exactly one minute. A siren sounds throughout the country and for 60 seconds everyone stands still where they are-frozen in time. In the street, by their cars, in doorways and on sidewalks, people stop. Not as though they are at attention but as if time, for that one minute stands still. It is powerful and sacred. I think that the power lies in the fact that the moment is in such stark contrast to daily life in Israel. Except for Shabbat (at least in Jerusalem), Israel is loud. The volume of life there seems to be at full blast. And yet, every person quiets for that moment of remembrance. What is it that drives an entire country to stop and collectively remember those who have died in the name of peace and freedom?

I read, “The reason for this-meaning the reason that people stop and remember for 60 seconds-is not hard to find. According to the Israeli government, 22,000+ men and women have died in the creation and defense of Israel.” If we translated that number relatively against the population of the United States, it would be the equivalent of well over one million people. The letter continued, “It is hard to find an Israeli for whom this day is not personal. Almost all Israelis have a particular person or a number of people whom they remember on Yom Hazikaron. This can be an army buddy, a friend from high school, a neighbor killed in a terror attack or a family member. For Israeli’s it is always personal.

Israeli’s are models of contradiction. Like New Yorkers (and as one, I feel comfortable saying so), they have a reputation for being tough, assertive and sometimes even rude. It’s the only place in the world where someone might knock you out of the way to grab a challah off the shelf of the grocery store. But, once they have the bread securely in their hand, they will with all sincerity invite you to share it at their Shabbat table. And they mean it. Israelis are warm and welcoming in a way that no other people are. I think that they understand that the world does not always, if ever, take their side and yet they remain curiously optimistic about the prospect of peace. The desire and prayer for peace permeates every aspect of their popular culture and has for many years. I realized after leaving Israel that this was one of the things that I loved most about it. There is an aspect of the sacred in the most secular and mundane. You cannot escape it. And so, if the truth be told, for Israel Déjà vu is always a part of Israel’s history. We go back and forth between seeing the possibility for peace to not really believing that it will ever be. Perhaps the real truth lies somewhere in the middle. Even in peaceful times, prayers for the peace and safety of Jerusalem continue to be constants in the lives of Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Cantor Claire Franco is a Vice President of the American Conference of Cantors. She is a member of the clergy team at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington Long Island. She lives there with her husband, Alan and daughters, Lael, Eden and Emory. You can view Claire's complete biography on the ACC website.