Sometimes you have to stand back a bit to observe how history is unfolding before your eyes. Sometimes backing away brings you even closer.
Take Memorial Day. It started after the Civil War to commemorate the war’s fallen, but soon came to honor the fallen in all America’s wars. Then in 1968, Congress moved it from May 31 to the last Monday in May, creating a long weekend and effectively transforming it from a day for honoring soldiers into a day for shopping and starting the beach season. (And this at the height of the Vietnam War!)
That, in turn, gave rise to another annual ritual: Berating each other over how Memorial Day has become a day for shopping and the beach and forgetting about the soldiers. The latest twist is the Memorial Day ritual of honoring Israel for actually remembering its soldiers on its Memorial Day. This is partly because Israel observes its Memorial Day and its Independence Day (the cost, the cause) consecutively rather than five weeks apart, like ours. Also because Israelis experience their wars more immediately and more universally (though that seems to be changing in various, distinct ways).
That said, I was pulled up short yesterday by a powerful Facebook post that brought home the immediacy of Memorial Day as a universal American experience. Deborah Winter wrote:
Just wanted to say thank you to my Uncle Raymond who died at age 23 fighting the Germans over Holland. You never got to come home, marry, have children, grow old. I thank you for your sacrifice.
And this made me think of my Uncle Morey, my mother’s kid brother.
Morey Moseson was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, the last great campaign of World War II, on February 15, 1945, three days before his 18th birthday. I never met him, but he’s been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. He was 23 months younger than my mother, and his death left a giant hole in the family that never really got filled.
My older sister was born three years later, on February 14, and was named Maurie Ann (Goldberg) in his honor. (Her initials were quickly turned into Mag, and she’s been Maggie ever since). I was born 21 months after that (and promptly addressed by my initials, like my sister), further sharpening his ongoing presence in our lives and our sense of our generation as a memorial to the previous one. We didn’t talk about him all that much, but he was always there.
For years I’ve wrestled with his memory, with the ways my siblings and I do and don’t keep him and his legacy alive. He was buried in Europe — we suspect the family couldn’t face the enormity at the time of bringing him home and standing before his grave. I took my own kids to visit his grave at the U.S. military cemetery in Luxembourg, where he’s one of 118 gleaming white stars amid an immaculate field of 5,000 white crosses. I’ve taken to saying a separate Yizkor prayer for him on the holidays. It’s been a large and very personal, private struggle.
But this year, this weekend, Deborah Winter gave me a new way of remembering and honoring him, thanking him and, in a way, welcoming him home. It feels right. Part of Memorial Day is understanding what the wars meant, of making the personal universal and vice versa, and understanding that wars do end.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).