To my surprise and dismay, after the first anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, by and large the organized Jewish community’s reaction has been muted.
To be fair, there have been exceptions. On the fifth anniversary, The Jewish Week published a section on the subject, including my article “The Holiest Place on Earth,” about my daughters and me praying at Ground Zero on Yom Kippur. Revealingly however, when the article was excerpted, or quoted in other parts of the country, it was by either a secular or, more commonly, a Christian paper.
This year is different, marking a decade since that tragic day. But when was the last time you heard a sermon dedicated to 9/11? How many 9/11 commemorations take place in Jewish institutions most years? In how many temples is the anniversary formally acknowledged? Have you ever seen a 9/11 plaque in a Jewish edifice?
I have asked many rabbis and community leaders about this and have received diverse responses, but none persuasive:
♦ Panic. Particularly in the first paranoid years following 9/11, any conspicuous gathering of Jews, especially one commemorating 9/11, was deemed an invitation for another 9/11. In New York City, for example, avenues on the West Side were no longer closed down to allow thousands of Jews to congregate on Simchat Torah.
♦ Politics. Invoking the memory of 9/11 too fervently, or frequently, is perceived by some as being Giulianiesque, and is mocked as such. It is derided as perpetuating Islam phobia and pandering to right-wing passions.
♦ Poor timing. The second week in September invariably precedes or coincides with the High Holy Days. There are more important topics to be pursued pertaining to the holidays, I am told. But the themes of life and death would seem to resonate more strongly with 9/11 than the topics I’ve heard about.
♦ 9/11 was not a uniquely Jewish event. One rabbi confided to me that, at the risk of strengthening the canard that Jews were instructed to stay home that day, when he peruses the list of casualties, clusters of O’Neils and Rosarios seemed to leap off the page. Goldbergs do not. When I asked him to scan the list again he acknowledged his mistake.
♦ Since the casualties died for being American, not Jewish, strictly speaking, they did not die Ahl Kiddush Hashem (to sanctify God’s name). Frankly, this reason infuriates me. Abe Zelmanowitz refusing to abandon his Christian quadriplegic best friend Ed Beyea in his wheelchair and dying at his side is one of the greatest Kiddushei Hashem I have ever come across.
♦ Fear of further inciting anti-Jewish hatred. If we’re at the forefront of 9/11 commemorations, so the thinking goes, then we’re first in line for retaliations. The panic has dissipated; the fear remains.
I learned of 9/11 in a unique way. I had awoken early to see my kids off to school. Being in the only profession in which one cannot yawn however, I returned to sleep. I was awoken by my wife. With tears streaming, she handed me the phone and left the room. I had no idea why she woke me, or who was on the phone. Frankly, I didn’t care. I only wanted to know why she was crying.
I quickly discovered that it was my friend Larry Silverstein (who had recently purchased The World Trade Center) and his family on the phone. They were concerned that they couldn’t find his son Roger.
I was now even more confused. Roger was a grown man. Why would they be so upset about losing contact with him at The World Trade Center? As they continued speaking, my confusion abated as my horror arose. With a shudder, a devastating picture came into alarming focus. Though I tried not to let it sound in my voice, there were tears now streaming down my face, as well.
As the owner of the buildings, in the decade since then, Larry has been in the unenviable position of having to fight with innumerable competing causes. Though, in my admittedly partial opinion, he has always done so with dignity, I worry that one of his adversaries will choose to make an issue of his being Jewish to perpetrate Jew-bashing. The aforementioned canard could be easily augmented. Not only did Jews destroy The World Trade Center, but then they refused to rebuild it. Where Jews are involved, the truth, or reasonableness, never interfere with a virulent conspiracy theory.
There is no worse feeling than helplessness. It can precipitate a need to do something, even if it accomplishes nothing. At other times however, it encourages our inertia because we assume that there is nothing to be done. It is true that there is nothing that the Jewish community can do to change the outcome of that horrific day. That does not however give us license to forget what happened. Commemorating 9/11 is both doing something, and accomplishing something.
There is nothing heroic about remaining silent when something that needs to be said.
While 9/11 does not belong exclusively to the Jewish community, it belongs to us no less than to anyone else. We didn’t lose more than others as in the Holocaust, but we didn’t lose fewer either. Strictly speaking, it might not be a Jewish holiday, but it is still a holy day sanctified by our blood and deserving our respect.
As we try to set moral paradigms for our children, we should not lose sight of the collective seminal event of our lives and the lessons to be learned from it. Say nothing? On the contrary, the manners in which we commemorate the tragedies that befall us say everything about us.
Isaac Steven Herschkopf is a psychiatrist and frequent contributor to these pages.