9/11 Plus Ten: Reminiscing About Reminiscing

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My shul, my entire neighborhood really, hardly acknowledges legal holidays. We very deliberately do not start Shacharis an hour later, as we do on Sunday. There is no slight intended to anyone. The feeling, apparently shared by many people, is that if we are lucky enough to have a day off, let’s maximize the time we have available for early morning shiurim and learning before the de rigueur family outings. To be sure, some of us find something attractive in sharing some Americana with our neighbors, and find ourselves always grilling burgers and franks in a backyard barbeque on Labor Day, and watching a fireworks display on July Fourth. And on national holidays with patriotic content like the Fourth and Memorial Day, I always have a large flag flying outside my house. I cannot say that this is a practice shared by too many of my shulmates. To them, as well as to too many other Americans in blue states, legal holidays are excuses to punctuate the calendar with a day to wash the car and shop at the mall, nothing more.

9/11 plus ten proved to be different. No one planned it that way, but the impact of events ten years ago was so overwhelming, the memories so deeply seared within us, that there was no question that all of us took part in the commemoration, one way or another. The frum community connected quite extensively, in part because we look for lessons to be learned and relearned, and there were so many of them that were worth exploring. Our homegrown papers and glossy weeklies did not disappoint, but served up many quality remembrances, first-person accounts, and considerations of the frailty of life and our obligation to value life and freedom. Without trying, we found ourselves doing what so many more Americans were doing – and perhaps a bit more of it.

By the time Sunday morning came around, I was not is need of catharsis or remembrance. I had already been there. I do work, however, at one of the chief cultural venues of Los Angeles, and we were one of a dozen plus sites that hosted a major event for the public. I showed up expecting to do my civic duty, which was an easier thing on a day in which we could not help but remember how an alien culture wishes to replace American democracy, with all its faults and weaknesses, with something dark, primitive and barbaric. I came to help out, not to be moved.

I was in for a surprise. The program, which lasted only about an hour, opened up old wounds and new feelings of pain. Hanging in front of the rotunda at the Museum of Tolerance was a huge tapestry, created by firefighters from La Crescenta. It was a patchwork, in which every red, white or blue box carried the name of another first responder who gave his or her life at the Twin Towers. You could not avert your eyes from this testimony to the sacrifice of hundreds of people who didn’t know what was going to happen to them, but certainly knew that they were putting their lives at risk. We heard the testimony of those who were there, who walked down scores of flights of stairs, dazed and already covered with debris, and watched these police officers, firefighters, and EMT’s head in the opposite direction directly to their deaths a few minutes later.

The crowd was entirely mixed, a cross-section of LA’s diversity. Nonetheless, one kapitel of Tehilim led off the program, in Hebrew and then English. I was surprised by how many in the crowd knew the psalm by heart. An LAPD brass band played patriotic music before, during and after the program. Some might have thought that a chamber ensemble performing something mournful might have been more decorous, but it would have been a mistake. The brass band’s music reminded the audience of the spirit of America that we were all more inclined to value and appreciate after becoming aware of the tens of millions who wish to see it snuffed out.

Mayor Villaraigosa led off the speaking. He said the right things for a mayor of a large city, and said them well. He ended with a plea that parents teach the values we share as Americans with their children. It was not a point that could have been predicted in a political address, which made it more effective and more moving.

Rabbi Marvin Hier was a show-stopper. He began by retelling the story of Shimmy Biegeleisen, hy”d, how he said goodbye to his wife, committed the care of his wife and children to a friend, and continued through the guidance of his rov with the recitation of viduy and Tehilim before the building collapsed. He told other stories of other heroes. He then broke all the rules of political correctness by insisting that we not only remember those who died, but the murderers as well. He observed that America had lived through wars before, but they had ended after some years. The war that began on 9-11, he warned, would go on for generations. It was with a culture that celebrated death over life, and ran counter to everything that America stood for.

Local politicians were called up, to begin the process of reading off the names of the nearly three thousand who perished in the Twin Towers. They were followed by consular officials, who did the same. They included Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Pakistan (!!!), Poland and Switzerland.

How long does it take to read the names of three thousand people? Hours. The process would continue much of the day, as the public was given its chance to remember, to honor the dead, and to do something cathartic.

For me, catharsis was walking outside where three thousand yahrzeit candles waited, along with lists, bearing stickers with the names of all the victims. I headed to the end of the alphabet, and lit the candle for Avraham Zelmanowitz, hy”d, who would not leave his quadriplegic African-American friend and coworker, and perished with him, along with a FDNY firefighter who reached them and tried rescuing both. His kiddush Hashem still resounds around the world.

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5 Responses

  1. Raymond says:

    It is times like these that I am reminded of how lucky I am, that I have not been in such situations. Whatever difficulties I have in my life, are nothing compared to what the victims of 9/11, as well as those who directly experienced the Holocaust, went through. If it is true that G-d never gives us more than we can handle, it is no wonder that I have not been put in those situations, because no way could I withstand such real-life horrors.

    Perhaps it is not my place to say so, but I do not quite understand why that man chose to stay with his handicapped Black friend, when he could have saved his own life. I do not mean to sound cold about it, but shouldn’t one try to save one’s life if one can do so?

    As for naming the enemy, while I can see both sides on this, I think that on balance, it is better not to, as the purpose of a memorial service is to remember the dead, the victims. Of course we have a moral duty to not only name the enemy but to battle evil until the very end of time, but all that should take place outside of a memorial service. Hatred of pure evil is necessary, just not at a memorial service.

  2. One Christian's Perspective says:

    In reading Rabbi Adlerstein’s touching article as well as the comments below it, I pondered why the name of the enemy was not mentioned and I arrived at this conclusion, in my humble opinion, that this was a Memorial Service. At Memorial Services – those which I have attended – the deceased is remembered as well as G-d who gave them life and special gifts to serve their fellow man. Many also recalled how the deceased used those gifts to honor G-d and serve Him in faith. The cause of death was not something that was memorialized unless it is the instrument G-d used for good. As I write, I am reminded of words my aunt that were read at her funeral. She praised G-d for the cancer because it turned her face back to Him .

    Surely, all things that happen have been ordained by G-d and it is up to the living to learn from every situation and turn to Him in trust with knowledge of His faithfulness, compassion and love as He works out His plan and purpose for our good and His Glory. We don’t have the mind of G-d and His ways are greater than our own. In looking back through time, it is easy to see His hand in human history. If Joseph had not been sold to eventually end up in Egypt in a position next to Pharaoh, would Israel have perished in the drought? In our time, we can ask if Pearl Harbor or Sept. 11th hadn’t happened , would……………………(fill in the blank).

    Shortly, after 9-11 happened and after a night of prayer, I was reminded of so many G-d moments: the planes not being filled; the towers standing that allowed most people to exit and get away; the plane that hit the strongest/recently renovated part of the Pentagon; an eye-witness account of seeing an open book on the corner of a desk through that burned incision into the Pentagon’s outer wall and discovering it was a Bible – untouched by flame; the coming together of so many peoples,tribes, and nations in the world to love one another and to share the loss and to mourn those we did not know; and,last but not least, the people of Gander, Newfoundland who opened their churches, schools , public places, homes,and stores to feed, comfort, provide beds for all the travelers who were forced to arrive there when the US air space was closed until it was open. What the enemy did for evil, G-d used it for good.

  3. joel rich says:

    The frum community connected quite extensively, in part because we look for lessons to be learned and relearned, and there were so many of them that were worth exploring. Our homegrown papers and glossy weeklies did not disappoint, but served up many quality remembrances, first-person accounts, and considerations of the frailty of life and our obligation to value life and freedom. Without trying, we found ourselves doing what so many more Americans were doing – and perhaps a bit more of it

    ———————————————————–
    Perhaps food for another post-how does/should (if at all) the frum community show hakarat hatov for the greater community that it dwells in?
    KT

  4. Bob Miller says:

    If we can’t even name the enemy, how do we deal with him? The original 9/11 attack itself was made possible by this PC madness—it’s not as if Al Qaeda and the other maniacs hadn’t done major mischief earlier. I picked up the Wall Street Journal at an airport last Friday, which had a short piece by an allegedly moderate Muslim cleric who has been shown to be anything but moderate behind the scenes.

  5. Dovid says:

    Wonderful post, thank you.

    I watched the memorial at Ground Zero on line, and like everyone else with a pulse who watched it, my ears welled with tears, my heart ached with anguish, and my mouth whispered tefilos. Seeing and hearing family members of the victims drove home the enormity of this catastrophe and how much personal suffering it caused.

    But, as RYA alluded to, there was something very important missing: no mention was made of who did this. Somebody who didn’t know what happened ten years ago and was watching the memorial would walk away thinking that a few planes malfunctioned and crashed into buildings. Political correctness and our post-modern aversion to identifying evil prevented Americans from reflecting upon the evil that exists in the world, and from remembering that 9/11 was part of an ongoing war against us. We have to remember that while we are shedding tears for the victims, there are Islamic monsters plotting their next attack ch”v. Besides remembering the dead, we have to protect the living, and we cannot do that without recognizing the threats that loom.