I’ve become accustomed to the sound of rocket sirens, the blaring noise that wakes you up in the middle of the night, prying you from the depths of REM sleep, urging you to get to your safe place within 60 seconds. I thought growing up in Manhattan meant that I was used to sirens, but these are different. A long wailing cry, usually followed by a boom. A rocket landing.

Even though it’s happened only a few times since I moved to Israel, that’s more than enough and I now jump at the sound motorcycles make when they start up. I mistake howling wind for rocket sirens. The fireworks that go off outside my window (I live near an event space and fireworks are popular at weddings here) make me cringe. And although the Iron Dome has been placed outside the city to intercept rockets, our apartment still shakes with sonic booms.

Recently, however, I experienced a different kind of siren. Instead of the undulating up-and-downs of the rocket siren, this one held a steady pitch. Memorial Day. And, just two days later, Israeli Independence Day. Both marked by this siren, which didn’t indicate a warning, but urged people to stop and memorialize. To think about what these days mean.

As the first siren went off, I looked out my window (usually I run the other way) and saw a surreal sight: everyone stopped in their tracks. Israelis, who will pummel through you to get a seat on the bus or get ahead in the supermarket line, froze. Every car braked and the passengers got out to stand beside their vehicle. Every person paused, like someone had hit a button on a remote control. And there they stood, completely motionless, for the duration of the siren. It ended as abruptly as it began, and they started again. The play button had been pushed, and we were all free from the freeze-frame.

What struck me in that moment was how real these holidays are to Israelis. Put aside your politics for a moment and think about the fact that Israel just celebrated its 64th birthday, that many of its citizens have been here from the beginning. Yom Hazikaron, or Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism Remembrance Day, remembers those who perished in the Holocaust, and recently in service of the country. In 2011, 22,867 soldiers were killed in the line of duty and 3,971 were civilian terror victims (warning: I got this fact from Wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt). This is no small number.

And here the Holocaust is not something you learn about in history books. It is still very real, and in people’s memories. I’ve had cab drivers here who were Holocaust survivors, who fled here and witnessed the birth of a nation. Similarly, Yom Ha’atzmaut, or Israeli Independence Day, is something that people here do not take for granted. Some would say they are still actively fighting for it.

I couldn’t help but compare the Israeli celebrations with American Memorial Day and Independence Day. What do most Americans think of? Barbecues. Three day weekends. For us Independence from the British was long ago, and it’s not something that is actively threatened. In Israel they don’t dare mark Memorial Day with parties; it is a solemn day, a day of mourning and reflection. On Independence Day, though, they get down. It is also a day of barbecues (here called mangal), a night of parties and fireworks. But what they are celebrating is more immediate. And some of the symbolism – Israeli flags printed on inflatable axes, for example – is quite strong.

This is not to say that everyone celebrates Israeli Independence Day. Many know it as Nakba Day, May 15. Palestinians refer to it as the day they were displaced. Every year there are protests, but this year was the worst in recent memory. Hundreds (some reports say thousands) of angry Syrians crossed the border into the Golan Heights. Many were shot. There were protests in Egypt, Gaza, the West Bank. For them, this day is very real as well. Both sides are still fighting.