That morning, I woke up around 8:30 am and started getting dressed for work and for my regular walk about 20 blocks uptown to work at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I was already late, and although I didn’t punch a clock at JTS, I was eager to get out of the house. Listening to my regular morning radio show on Z100, I heard a shift in the DJ’s tone. “By the way,” he said, “if you don’t have your TV on, you might want to go ahead and turn it on – the World Trade Center is on fire.”
Back in those early moments of that clear September morning, we had no idea what we were witnessing – smoke billowing from one floor of the WTC, we assumed, was from an internal fire, perhaps an explosion of an undetermined origin. I called my mother in New Jersey to make sure she was watching. (Checking the official timeline reveals that this phone call might have happened shortly before 9am.) We watched CNN together for a few minutes, as the announcer shared a new theory, that a small plane had accidentally flown into the tower. It was surreal, and sad. But at that point, we didn’t even have the tragic imagination to begin to understand what was happening, that we were under attack, that two other planes were currently en route to additional targets in the DC Metro area. But it was while we were watching that tragedy – which we assumed to be tragic, but concluded - that we saw the second plane (9:02:59).
At first I thought that CNN had gone to an instant replay. But the tower in the “replay footage” was already smoking - we realized with horror that this was a second plane. My heart jumped, and I jumped off the couch, and said out loud, on the phone to my mother, “Osama fucking bin Laden.” I don’t know why, but that was my purest, most immediate response; perhaps it was some sort of flashback to the first World Trade Center bombing, which my college roommate’s boyfriend had escaped from. At that moment, I knew I couldn’t go to work. I was staying home, phone-tethered to my mother, until I knew what was going on.
I watched, with much of America and the world, as the buildings, once so strong and solid, disintegrated and fell, producing heavy debris and killing and injuring thousands. Each toppling of an edifice seemed like something out of a movie, but happening with an audible roar and palpable tremors beyond Hollywood’s artificial means.
As the hours and days passed, I discovered that I knew people who had fled their office buildings, walking miles uptown in uncomfortable shoes, through the fallout, white, incinerated ashen dust that no one wanted to think about. I knew people who had delayed their arrivals at work that morning for whatever small reason – voting, dropping children off at school, or indulging in their regularly scheduled piano lesson even though it meant being late to the office.
Then the signs started going up on the Upper West Side – and all over the city – within a day. And as time passed, I knew people whose names were listed among the “missing,” which rapidly evolved to a list of the dead.
New York was never the same– terror had blown a hole right through it and shattered our sense of safety. The impact reverberated beyond the moment for all of us, even those who, like me, had been mostly sheltered from the immediate fallout. Whereas before I had felt invigorated by New York’s seemingly eternal pulse, I was suddenly aware of how much was temporary, and began to live the life of a trauma survivor – always taking food and water with me when I left the house, having a “go-bag” at the ready, wearing comfortable shoes at all costs, because you never knew what might happen.
In those years, I was not a blogger. But I sent an email to friends, written in those early moments of mid-September. The piece was jagged and disjointed – structurally not my finest work, but reading it again (“the fires continue to burn as the smell wafts north”) ten years later pokes at the scar that covers the wound, and the pain flares momentarily.
Looking at the email distribution list – because in those days I was apparently not familiar with the bcc function – I see names from college, from my Chicago City Limits improv classes, from the Upper West Side. Almost none of those people is at the same job that he or she held then. Almost none of us have the same email addresses. Those who were medical students are now doctors. My rabbi friends, who had just begun pulpits as assistant rabbis, now run the spiritual show at congregations across the United States. A college friend has since died of breast cancer. Notably absent from that list of names are the people who have come into my life over the last decade – best friends I hadn’t met yet, friend-colleagues who would bring me amazing projects and opportunities, and of course, the entirety of my current life in California, a chapter whose existence I never could have predicted in 2001.
Over the last ten years, much has changed, even in my little world. I became an aunt, a freelancer, a consultant, a speaker. Terms like “blogs,” “social media,’ “Facebook,” “Birthright Israel,” “ROI Community,” or “Jewish innovation sector” meant nothing to me - or to anyone - then, but everything to me now – international support structures, always available for laughter or sympathy. And of course, this year’s anniversary, marking the decade since the towers fell, also is the first in which my emotional tether on 9/11 and on my most difficult days before and after that, my mother, is also gone.
Every year, those of us who were in NY on that day feel its echoes like earthquake aftershocks – not just on the anniversary itself, but in odd moments that come on us like patches of elevated sidewalk that we don’t know are there until they trip us – sometimes we manage to catch ourselves before hitting the ground, and at other times, we feel the impact physically, suffer scratches, bleed. Loss is an oddly amorphous thing, wafting uptown until we inhale it, feel it within us. But outside our lungs and beyond our bodies, you wouldn’t know it was there, because it just looks like air. And it continues, the loss - invisibly insidious, living inside words and experiences, lurking for the odd vulnerable opening, the opportunity to extend a barb, puncture a lung, making it hard to breathe.
As I try to finish this piece, it’s September 11, 2011, and in the background, I’m listening to the names being read at Ground Zero. Some of the readers are children, and they can’t possibly remember. People are taking rubbings of the names from the wall of the memorial, and bereaved readers pause at the end of their recitations for personal reflections, illustrating the pain and the journeys of their families through the last decade, sending news updates into the Great Beyond. The names represent every ethnic group, including Orthodox Jews, one of whom ends his recitation with Hebrew: "May God wipe the tears from all of our faces," he says. Another mourner, a sister, invokes the Serenity Prayer – "May God grant us the serenity to accept what we cannot change."
Even for those who find some measure of comfort in faith or God, this grief, this sadness, will never be over. Even those mourners who seek some kind of undefined "closure" - information about how their relatives spent their final moments, or why things happened the way they happened that day - will still feel the emptiness of a lost loved one. But one relative of 9/11 victim Alan Avraham Shwartzstein, z”l, ended his names recitation with a charge that we can all pursue, regardless of our proximity to this particular grief, in helping us to cope with losses great and small: “Share everyone’s stories, so we never forget. “
Here are some stories by some of my friends, and two videos by friends of New York.
"NY Graduate Remembers 9/11" by Ruvym Gilman
"New York Thoughts" by Jeremy Epstein
"Emails from Manhattan" by Meredith Englander Polsky
"September 11: Remembering and Forgetting" by Jordana Horn
"Reflections, Ten Years Later" by Dave Feinman
"Three Years Later" by Deb Schultz