Looking back at our history, with sadness and with joy

By James Inverne, April 19, 2013
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For a culture that officially always feels (at least) two things at once, Yom Hazikaron (the memorial day for fallen soldiers) in Israel is disconcerting. It's not what we're used to. Every observant Jewish child is taught that the holidays are about two things - being thankful for what we have, and remembering the suffering of others.

At a glance, Yom Hazikaron epitomises exactly this, in that it falls directly before Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day. And yet, it doesn't. These are two very pure experiences - distilled mourning, heralded by the joltingly unmusical air raid sirens that sound across the country to call for two minutes of silence. It sounds as though the air itself is crying.

The sheer shock means that both stand out

Israeli television channels close down. Shops are shut. During the siren, traffic literally grinds to a halt, as cars even on the motorways stop and their drivers get out and stand, respectful and solemn. There is no joy here. No thanking our lucky stars. Our fortune came at the cost of someone else's tragedy. To celebrate that would be to spit on their grave.

But then something curious happens, and it could only happen in a society where the next day starts at dusk, undivided by a night's sleep. In one instant, Yom Hazikaron ends, and the next, Yom Ha'atzmaut begins. To be flippant, it's rather like that scene in Live and Let Die, where the weeping Harlem funeral procession turns to wild dancing in the street at the sudden call of a trumpet.

And so we are required to dry our eyes, to shake ourselves out of our misery, to put on our party hats and our biggest smiles and dance. With no pause in which to pull ourselves together, we must go from purest sorrow to purest joy.

Why? The arts can offer some ideas. The business of sudden contrasts in mood has long been a stock-in-trade of artists, and the truly great use the device to teach us something about life. One of my favourites occurs in Puccini's La Boheme. The opera is a brilliantly-balanced see-saw - the first half light and romantic, the second riven with anguish, jealousy and death - that pivots around two stabbing, unexpected chords that start Act III. Suddenly we're on entirely different terrain, and yet Puccini has simply fast-forwarded the relationships, showing us the contrasts down the road without charting the gradual path by which the characters get there. So we are presented with stark and crisp realities - Rodolfo is jealous, Mimi is ill, Marcello is argumentative, Musetta is a compulsive flirt. Each character's essential truth, in clear view. It's devastating.

Mahler too dealt in contrasts, working through his own bipolar qualities in his music. With seemingly spontaneous jolts, death-defying swoops from the top to the bottom of the stave, Mahler never lets the listener, or the players, rest. He disorientates everyone with plunge-pool shocks of mood and speed. To what end? Well, it's all so nerve-jangling that one can't help but stay on the edge of the seat, alert – alive. Mahler was terrified of death as much as he clung fiercely to life. And as long as you're listening to this stuff, by heaven do you know you're still kicking.

But, even if you can equate the twisting-turning Mahler effect to, say, some of the films of Quentin Tarantino, or the plays of Martin McDonagh, the Puccini paradigm is more common. Shakespeare uses that inverse mirror-image idea a few times. In Troilus and Cressida, his anti-war play that starts off like a military-setting rom-com and somewhere during the interval turns on its head to become a bitter indictment of the ideas of eternal love and military chivalry. But that isn't about clarity, it's about using shock tactics for dramatic impact.

Maybe that's it. The sheer shock of going immediately from Yom Hazikaron to Yom Ha'aztmaut is so removed from our daily lives that both events stand out. They stay with you throughout the year. And so do their messages.

But there is also an obvious practical reason for having the happy event follow its sad precursor - it helps to ease the sorrow, it brings us out of these days, joined at the hip as they are, with hope and optimism. Ancient Greek actors used to end their tragedies with a comic event, for exactly that reason. And the great director Peter Brook wanting to emulate them at the end of a National Theatre Oedipus Rex, once unveiled an enormous on-stage model phallus. That is also pretty disconcerting. Yet nobody could accuse Peter Brook of being just your average shock jock.

Last updated: 8:45am, April 19 2013