Last night, we were sitting at the dinner table discussing that it would soon be Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) and that there would be a siren at school tomorrow. My 12-year-old started thinking about the word siren. Here was our conversation.
Z: “Are there different words for sirens in English? Like, do my cousins in America have different words for sirens?”
Me: “No,” I said, knowing where he was going, “I don’t think so. It’s just a siren.”
Z: “Wait, we have a word for emergency sirens (אזעקה) when there are bombs and we have to run, and we have a word for memorial sirens (צפירה) when we have to stand still. Are there different words like that for sirens in America?”
Me: “No.” I said, noticing that he hadn’t mentioned the seemingly most obvious kind of siren. “They just don’t have these types of sirens — they have no need for words about them. They don’t get bombed on a regular basis, and they don’t do memorials the way we do. If they heard a siren, it would be an ambulance siren. They wouldn’t have any context that there are other types of sirens.”
Z: “What?” he said giggling with nervous disbelief. “What do you mean?”
Me: “So, a siren in America means that an ambulance is coming through, or a firetruck, or police. There are no other sirens.”
He sat there, stunned.
A life without sirens.
I could see his wheels turning.
On the one hand, he was thinking, that would mean a world where you don’t go running to the safe room as bombs drop; where you don’t dive into a bush when you’re playing at the basketball court and pray that you aren’t going to get hit with shrapnel; where you don’t quiver with a false alarm when you’re home alone and call your parents in tears.
On the other hand, his logic held, how could you have a life without memorial sirens? Without the understanding that your Jewish and Zionist roots were attached to the terror, desecration, and rebuilding of your Holocaust-surviving ancestors. Without understanding that your Jewish and Zionist life has been built on the backs of those who risked, and lost, their lives building and defending the country. Without stopping to understand and recognize your neighbor’s son, your friend’s father, your principal’s brother whose lives were taken by terrorists with a core mission of wiping you, and your country, off the map.
“Well,” he said, “that’s just weird. How do they live that way?”
You know how people say that the Inuit have 200 words for snow?
I wonder if any other countries have specific words to distinguish among sirens.
And to ensure that you know when to run for your life, and when to stand at attention to appreciate your life and those who sacrificed theirs to enable yours.
This first appeared on Times of Israel on April 8, 2021