With all my Denver-ness and Israeli-ness, on 9/11 I’m a New Yorker. While all of us Americans stand shoulder to shoulder in memory of this terrible day of violent disruption that changed the world, in New York it’s different. All these years later, 18 years later, it’s a somber day. An intimate day. For a critical mass of people wandering the streets, intersecting your path, be it subway riders, the people serving you coffee or ringing up your groceries, the mailman wheeling the mailbag into your lobby with letters jutting in all directions, the uniformed doorman, or the random person your just locked eyes with — they were there.
And they are here. They lived the aftermath. The blood donations. The shut bridges. The panic and terror. The plastered to wall signs asking of loved one’s whereabouts. The candlelit prayer vigils. The waiting and wondering. The terrible news that followed. The endless 24-hour cycles of shmira, paying homage to the Jewish ritual of of guarding the bodies whose souls had departed, so they are not alone, until interred.
To walk among these streets on this day; to be in the presence of such immediate collective memories, is to be a New Yorker on 9/11.
New York has always been a second home to me. It’s where my grandparents lived. The place I dwelled during my childhood summers.
When I became a young adult, about 18, I chose New York City for university. The city became my home.
I was on the cusp of adulthood when I became a New Yorker. Today, there is a whole generation of 18-year-old New Yorkers, born after 9/11.
“Where were you when the towers fell?” a student asked me yesterday. That’s when it hit me. Eighteen years. A generation. With that one question, instantaneously, I felt a great sense of history. Her pointed question to me echoed the questions I had asked my grandparents about the Depression or pre- WW II Europe, or my parents about The Six Day War.
Where was I? I was in Jerusalem. In my mind, a former New Yorker. College, grad school, my first teaching jobs — all behind me. I was living in a different world. A different reality. I was immersed in the seething rage of the Second Palestinian Intifada. Just a couple of months earlier I had been to the funeral of a teaching colleague who had been blown up in the Sbarro bombing.
Should we go to that particular café? Is it likely to be a target? If we sit in the back near an exit is there a better chance we can escape? Is there security at this location? Do you know a side peripheral road to take so as to avoid a certain main street? How much will cab fare be (when buses were avoided). These were the some of the questions that occupied our minds. Terrorism. Bombs. Suicide bombs. Each night brought the anxiety of the following day’s unknown.
Now we were sitting in Jerusalem watching it play out in New York on live television.
In minutes, the world had shrunk. In seconds, the divide between our perception of “Safe America”’ versus “Terrorized Israel” was erased. “Tzarat rabbim hatzi nechama,” the pithy saying about the suffering of the collective being a partial comfort, is never a good sign. It the means pain has proliferated. Yet the power of this rabbinic truism runs deep.
Tremendous confusion set in as we all woke up to a changed world, a world where such a profound act of evil was distilled into two numbers: 9.11. Once the busy international signals cleared, I was constantly on the phone with shell-shocked New York family and friends. A place, not long before, I had called home.
The stories of heroism began trickling in. The humanity and vulnerability of tough New Yorkers was humbling. Italian. African American. Spanish. Irish. It didn’t matter. Americans are Americans. Period.
And New York, being the Jewish hamlet that it is, was also replete with stories of Jews deeply intertwined with 9/11. Hatzalah, a Jewish first responder organization, was on the scene right there with NYFD.
Tragically, there were many stories that touched the Jewish community. Avremel, a Jew from Brooklyn who died because he chose not to save himself by refusing to leave the side of his wheelchair-bound colleague, obviously unable to escape. Young dad, Jeremy Glick of United Airlines flight 93, who was heard shouting “Let’s Roll!” just after telling his wife, in their final conversation, that he will be rushing the hijackers. Danny Lewin, the first casualty of 9/11, who was on the flight from Boston and tried to fight back. Danny was an Israeli American, a former IDF officer in the elite unit, “Sayeret Matkal. The stories are endless. The freaky near misses.
And those first responders. The heroes who never did return home that night from their shifts.
I think of them as I walk toward my local firehouse on 100th Street, here on the Upper West Side in New York; cakes, cookies and flowers in hand. I ring the bell and hear that distinct, resonant sound of the firehouse bell.
Earlier in the day I had heard the random but urgent wail of a fire truck. It struck me differently than usual on this day of 9/11.
I waited. A fireman answers the door. The name Greenfield is sewn onto his shirt.
Each year I try and stop by with treats to my local fire house or local police precinct. One year I attended the local firehouse 9/11 memorial ceremony.
Today, I just stood there, fumbling for what to say. I usually go early in the morning. There are a few firefighters there. The atmosphere is somber, yet welcoming. This time, it was one on one. He just stood there at the door. Staring. Didn’t say a word. We just stood there looking into each other’s eyes. No words needed. He knew why I rang the bell. It was understood. His eyes shone with emotion as his gaze held mine.
“I wanted to come and be here with you at the firehouse for a few minutes today,” I finally said. “It’s a hard day.”
“You truly are our heroes today and everyday.”
“It is a hard day . . . we lost one of our fighters from this station that day,” he replied.
“He wasn’t at our firehouse that day but he was down there and . . .” his voice trailed off.
“It’s just a little gesture,” I said, as I handed him my little care package, with more and more goodies I kept pulling out. This lightened the atmosphere, and by the time I left I was encouraging him to eat the cake, uncharacteristically but unabashedly telling him it’s delicious.
Where have 18 years gone?
They’ve gone in swirls that have created layers upon layers of 9/11 moments, stories, remembrances, and legacies. And in these years, they have, after all, brought me back from Jerusalem to New York.
Where on this day, I too have become a part of the community of New Yorkers on 9/11.
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News