i don’t know why I am so surprised that I keep returning to these stories.
Because that is who we are, we Jews. We are impresarios in the performance art of repetition. We know that to repeat a story is to internalize it, and to live it.
Thus, as we approach Rosh Ha Shanah, the word “shanah” itself, with its almost inexhaustible translations.
Yes, “year.” And yes, “repeat.” And also, “to learn” and “to teach.”
And, also: “to change.”
This day comes every year, and I repeat the stories, and I learn the stories, and I teach the stories.
But, nothing really changes. It occurs to me that our century was born in trauma, and twenty years later, with the coming of COVID, we continued that legacy of trauma — albeit in slow motion.
September 11, 2001 was a dazzling sunny day. The sky was rarely bluer.
That was the day that three thousand lives ended, and the day that our lives changed forever.
This, then, is the twenty-second yahrzeit of American innocence.
On September 11, 2001, I was serving as the rabbi of a congregation in Port Washington, New York, on the extreme northern tip of Long Island’s North Shore.
Four stories of that day — stories that I repeat, that I return to every year, to learn, to teach — and nothing has really changed.
The staff meeting. September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday, and as such, it was the usual day for our synagogue staff meeting. It began at eleven o’clock in the morning; by then, the true depth of the horror was unfolding.
As you might expect in an affluent North Shore synagogue, we had many members who worked in the financial district.
To be blunt, we expected that our congregation would suffer many casualties.
At the staff meeting, I said these words to my colleagues.
“There might be many deaths. As you know, our synagogue custom is to allow funerals in the sanctuary for our members.
“There is no good way to say this. We might have many requests for funerals in the sanctuary. We will simply have to deal with those requests as they come in.”
In fact, the congregation suffered no immediate losses; some relatives of congregants died that day.
It did not matter. What mattered was that I needed to find the syntax for a paragraph that I never thought I would say.
The baristas in Starbucks. The community adjacent to Port Washington, Manhasset, was greatly affected by the events of 9/11. Part of it was due to Manhasset’s demography — a significant Irish Catholic population — which meant firefighters, policemen, and traders.
Which means that there were many Catholic school reunions — the traders rushing down the stairs, the firefighters and policemen heroically rushing up. They were the same people.
On September 12, I went to the Starbucks in Manhasset, which is adjacent to the Long Island Rail Road station.
I listened to the young baristas behind the counter, whispering about the cars that had been parked in the station parking lot on the morning of September 11 — only to remain there at the end of the work day.
Silent sentinels of the worst day in American history.
“Rabbi, about my windows…” No amount of seminary and post-seminary education, no amount of collegial conversations or extra-curricular reading – could have prepared me for the question that a congregant asked me in the wake of the September 11 disaster.
It happened during the break in services on Yom Kippur, which was shortly after the disaster.
She pulled me aside, and she asked me this question.
Rabbi, I live on the Upper West Side. My windows are covered with the grime that has drifted uptown since…
I need to clean my windows, but I’ve got to believe that there are ashes of the dead in that dust. It doesn’t seem right to just have the windows cleaned.
What do I do?
My wondering Jew knew that Judaism views the human body with reverence. She knew that the sanctity of the body lingers after death, way after the body has been reduced to its elements. Judaism frowns on cremation, and yet the ashes of the dead are routinely buried in Jewish cemeteries.
She knows something else.
Yes, the American rabbi is often a master of ceremonies and a spiritual CEO.
And yet, the traditional role of the rabbi always wins out. That role is as teacher, with a life embedded in a wisdom tradition, as someone who hears questions and who uses a millennia-old tradition to find answers.
But, it is between services, and my head, heart, and soul are elsewhere. (So is my fasting stomach). I don’t have the time to repair to my book-laden study – much less to write to a Jewish legal authority and ask the question.
Out of somewhere, my answer came out.
This is what I would do.
Use a paper towel to wipe the windows clean as much as possible. Then put the paper towel in an envelope, take it to a Jewish funeral home, and ask them to bury it the next time they do a funeral.
She nodded and thanked me for the advice – and that is precisely what she did.
It is now twenty two years later, and I have retired from the full time congregational rabbinate.
I still do not know if I gave her the “right” answer.
But there are times when we must consult a different kind of Talmud.
It is a multi-volume tome that is located within the sacred library of the soul.
On September 11, 2001, I learned about that library.
A final story — one that I have never told anyone.
The bar mitzvah mother. Jeremy Goldberg (not his real name) was to have celebrated becoming bar mitzvah on Shabbat morning, September 15.
On Wednesday, September 12, his mother, Debbie (also not her real name) came to see me in my office.
The Goldbergs were not active members of our synagogue. I rarely, if ever, saw them at services. They were a somewhat typical religious school family.
But, not on that day.
“Rabbi,” Debbie said to me, “You know that Jeremy’s bar mitzvah is happening this weekend. Frankly, I don’t know what to do. I think that maybe we should cancel… you know, because of what happened.”
“Debbie,” I responded, “that is a noble thought, and it is coming from the best part of you. But, no — Jeremy has prepared well, and he deserves to be called to the Torah in front of his family and community.”
She thought for a moment.
“Maybe we should cancel the party? I mean, we would lose a lot of money….”
“Debbie,” I continued, “it is a mitzvah to celebrate these sacred and joyous moments of life…”
She interrupted me. “What about the band? Should I cancel the band?”
Ultimately, the Goldbergs cancelled neither the ceremony, nor the party, nor the band. She did, however, tell me that she would request that the band play more softly than they might have otherwise played, and that they include some songs that might have been more subdued.
Debbie was not a traditional Jew, nor do I believe that she had a traditional Jewish upbringing.
But, she knew more than she realized she knew about Jewish mourning practices. She must have known that during shloshim, the initial thirty day period of Jewish mourning, when feelings are the most raw, that traditional Jews don’t listen to music.
Somewhere in the depth of her Jewish soul, she “knew” this.
I am constantly amazed at what Jews know about their tradition. Even more than they realize they know.
But, on this yahrzeit — yes, I remember and repeat and retell those stories — to you, but mostly, to myself.
My thoughts turn to those who died on that day.
May the memories of all of them — airline passengers and crews; those in the towers; those on the ground first responders, police, firemen, and those who have died from diseases first incubated on that terrible day — be a blessing.
Year after year: to repeat, to learn, to teach…
And it never changes.