My colleague, Cantor Jodi Schechtman, watches with her family as the Twin Towers are built
Before you read this, I want you to turn on your speakers, go to youtube.com and listen to “Autumn In New York” while you’re reading. You can choose from Ella or Frank or a myriad of artists; my choice for this particular occasion is Billie Holiday.
What a time it was. What a time it promised to be. I had completed mourning the year following the passing of my father. I’d just finished serving my first summer on faculty at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, California, where I had met Karen Susman, my star-crossed sister from another mister (now godmother to my daughter). My then-husband Mark and I had spent a glorious Labor Day weekend hiking the underground caverns in Carlsbad, New Mexico and watched the bats take off on their lyrical nightly sunset flight in search of fruit and mosquitoes and the joy of defying gravity. During that same weekend our son Harry was conceived halfway around the world in Seoul, South Korea. We did not, of course, know this yet, but we had made the initial, official application to become parents through adoption, and this buoyed us greatly.
Mark’s oldest friend David was about to be married in Massachusetts. With the High Holy Days nearly upon us and me in the middle of the preparations for our home and our temple, I could not attend the wedding but Mark would stand up as David’s best man as David had done for Mark at our wedding. We had met and loved Beverly, so again we were really happy for them both. Mark and David had been buddies since kindergarten and it was all good.
On a lovely pre-autumn morning in Albuquerque Mark was just closing his suitcase and watching the Today show in the bedroom. At sometime sevenish Mountain Time I was in the bathroom when I heard Mark say with uncanny calm, “Two airplanes have hit the World Trade Center.” My first thought was, “Two? This is no accident.” I joined him in front of the TV in disbelief as we watched the towers destruct. Could this be really happening? I remember when they built the towers….world’s tallest at the time after the Empire State Building….From our safe vantage point 1500 miles and a TV screen away, the mighty twin towers looked like toys as they smoked and crumbled to rubble.
Mark called the airport and ascertained that he would not be flying that day. All flights were cancelled from everywhere. Mark grew heartbroken as he realized he would miss David’s wedding; David never really recovered from the disappointment. Mark’s father, who would also be attending, lived within driving distance; he stepped up to fill in the honor but it wasn’t the same.
The rest of that particular day remains a blur. I know we talked to everyone in our immediate families to make sure they were okay, particularly after hearing about the subsequent attacks in Pennsylvania and on the Pentagon. I remember thinking, as I still do, that I was actually glad my father didn’t live to see this.
I know I went to work that day; that we focused on the attacks; that my rabbi and hundreds of his colleagues had to re-write their High Holy Day sermons; that we joined with the interfaith community to prepare, and eventually participate in, a service with our Unitarian, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim friends at one of the downtown churches. I know that I learned the Arabic verse to “Od Yavo Shalom” but I don’t remember the source. I know that I met with the local Imam to sing it for him in order to make sure I was doing so correctly and in a way that made sense.
I know a few other things, too. We went to war with Afghanistan shortly after, and even the most dovish among us thought we were doing the right thing. Flying, both domestic and international, has never been the same again and never will be; I haven’t flown since 2009 and don’t miss it. I know that the I-1600 form and process (“petition to adopt a foreign-born orphan” including fingerprints), which took half an afternoon to complete in order to welcome Harry, took fifteen months to complete in order to welcome his sister Xiao-Ling because homeland security had kicked in and was keeping out of the U.S. all the babies who supposedly needed parents but were probably really packing napalm or worse.
A lot of people think the world changed forever on September 11, 2001. For me it changed the day Challenger exploded in January 1986 because I knew that space travel, which I had held sacred as a little kid, was not really being tended as carefully as it should and, thanks to a frozen O-ring, we knew that there were people high up in NASA who really didn’t care whether anybody survived their games and experiments as long as they made their money.
But back to 9-11: The loss of life remains unfathomable. Practically everyone who died knew that the end was near and that they were being killed violently and with hatred. I shudder for their last moments even as I mourn for their lost lives. We celebrate the babies that were born of the pregnant widows of those who died. And we should. But there is a deeper, unreported sadness among some of these families; I personally know one who is experiencing “widow’s disconnect”. A young father died; his wife gave birth to twins soon after. The devastated grandparents should receive a great measure of comfort even in the face of unmeasurable grief….but their grandchildren’s mother has distanced herself from the family and they hardly ever see the twins. We don’t read about that stuff, but I know it secondhand as a cantor and thirdhand as a friend.
Basically I’m an east-coaster but I was living in New Mexico when the attacks took place. I lived in New York city for ten years, but I know I can never grieve, haven’t truly the right to do so, as one who was actually in an area where the attacks came. I can’t blame myself for that, but I can’t pretend I’m in a category I’m not. I was safe as cheese in the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico and I can’t really know, will never really know, what it was like to live with a smoking, gaping hole in my home where once there lived, worked, and hummed a city within the city. Hell, *Working Girl*, one of my favorite films, took place there.
I came to New York on business about a month after the attacks. It was a typically sparkling day; the type that inspired Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York.” What did I see in my forever-changed city that day? I tried to feel the vibe in the sidewalk rumbles emanating from the subways rushing below my feet; and in the breeze from Central Park Lake as my friend Frank and I rowed a rented boat (I also remember that we laughed as we saw a condom floating insouciantly on the lake’s otherwise seemingly pristine surface). I strove to glean goodness from the old joys I remembered of living in this amazing helluva town, and seeing celebrities walk down the street and live like regular old goobs in a way they can’t do in Los Angeles as we ran into Kathleen Turner while buying ice cream at Haagen-Dazs. If the city could talk, it would have said, “We’re shaken. We’re stirred. The most and the least we can and must do is, we’re gonna keep on keeping on. Cause we have to.”
(Autumn in New York, Billie Holiday:) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cl_e7UW-bz8
In my mind, the ugliness that followed the rebuilding of Ground Zero has dishonored the dead and glorified the perpetrators. A mosque, whose purpose was peace and wholeness, has been reviled. A cross, which many of my close friends hold dear as a symbol of love, has been erected and vilified. The entire tragedy has been marginalized, staken claim to (“my loss is greater than your loss”) , commercialized, branded and marketed beyond belief. The dead have faded into the wings as mere window dressing in the scheme of our best excuses to hate and hate harder.
So I ask you to imagine with me today. First, think about the people you want to destroy, or keep out of our country, or kick out of our country, or hope you never meet. You won’t be able to get a clear reading on them because guess what? Those people don’t have faces. You’ve never met them, you don’t know them, you’re lumping them into a big fuzzy group and truly you have no idea who they are so you can’t imagine them. Don’t tell me you live in Texas or Arizona or Baja California and you know what you’re talking about. Trust me, the imaginary people who live in the cement block you’ve added to your heart and built a barbed-wire fence around, don’t have a face. So there is nothing there for you to hold on to. So take that cement block full of blurry non-people who don’t exist and let’s do a little trick with it that we learned from our favorite creepy episode of The Twilight Zone: Let’s put it in the cornfield.
The next thing I’m going to ask you to do is something really painful but it’s really real. I want you to picture the people who died that day. Not all of us know someone who died in the planes or in the towers, but all of us knows someone who knew someone who knew someone who died, and that’s enough for this exercise. That’s a really real person. I’m going to picture the boss of my niece’s ex-boyfriend, who was flying from Boston Logan Airport; and I’m going to picture my old opera acquaintance Stephen Poulos, who dated a dear soprano friend of mine back in the 80s. I’m also going to picture two grandparents I know well, whose hearts will never stop breaking over the loss of their son by violence; and of their twin grandchildren by their mother’s choice and neglect. Please imagine and join with me. In the space of your heart where you kept that Gitmo cel you just put in the cornfield, I want you to rebuild a new chamber. This one is decorated in the finest, softest fabrics you can imagine; it is painted in peace and in vibrance and in rest; it is warm in winter and cool and summer. In this room live the dead and devastated of 9/11/01; those whom you know, and those whom you don’t. Open your arms in your mind and welcome them in. Hold them tenderly and give them a place to rest. Let your tears nourish the soil around their home even as they heal and cleanse your soul. This is going to hurt…. and then it’s going to help.
And let’s be good to each other. You know what else I remember? That for about five minutes, the entire world that was left behind pulled together. We really did. That lasted through Thanksgiving I think, and faded with he final notes of “God Bless America” that was belted out from a lot of pulpits. Then we got mad and acted on our anger. Can we go back to that other time? Please? And can we stay there until we fix a few things and stop flouting “my belief emblem” as being better than “your belief emblem”?
Here’s what I remember most of all: on September 11, 2001 the weekly Torah portion was Ha-azinu. It’s the second-to-last portion in Deuteronomy and Moses is, shall we say, deeply pissed. He knows he’s about to die. He knows he’s not going to make it to the promised land even though he’s been working his ass off to get everybody else in there. He’s been living in the desert with 650,000 disgruntled Israelites and their offspring for the past 40 years, his family is dead, he’s exhausted, he’s disappointed, and he’s about to really let us have it. Which he does, in verse after verse of the most tersely poetic, difficult-to-read-and-articulate Hebrew in the entire TaNaKh. You don’t even have to be acquainted with Hebrew – just start Deuteronomy 32:1 from any Bible or website, and you’ll really cringe. I mean, Moses says things I can compare to lectures from my early grade school teachers in East Tennessee in the late 1960s, and they weren’t pleasant to hear back then either.
How Ha’azinu looks in a Torah Scroll
Ha’azinu is also known as the Song of Moses. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haazinu Like the Ten Commandments, Song of the Sea and the Priestly Benediction, it is considered a poem. Each of these poems is laid out and hand-lettered into specific shapes and schemes in the Torah scroll, which makes them easy to find among other things. If you look at the shape of Ha-azinu in the Sefer Torah, you will find that its verses are sculpted into a scheme of two columns, divided by a huge space in the middle. A pair of tall, slim, majestic, precisely architectured ….. twin towers.
Migdol = tower