Shabbat at the Memorial | The Jewish standard
Early on Shabbat morning, I passed two men walking towards me on Riverside Drive, one right behind the other, appearing to be marching in step, even though they actually had no connection between them.
The first was a somewhat chubby man in his early fifties, dressed as a Jew with a black hat in yes, a black hat, a white shirt, and a black suit, with tzitzit visible. The second was a young black man, policeman or firefighter, in ceremonial uniform, with a black face mask.
The first man was probably heading for a synagogue or a shtiebel; the neighborhood is strewn with them. The second most likely was heading to the 19th annual commemoration at the Firefighters Memorial.
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It was Shabbat Shuvah, the returning Shabbat, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
It was Saturday September 11.
As I walked home with my dogs, I passed many firefighters and police officers on my way to the memorial. Some of them wore kilts; they were pipers. When I got home, on the 13th floor, with the windows open, I heard the lament of the pipes. Like a shofar, the cry of a bagpipe can travel long distances to tear your heart.
Just before the ceremony started, Andy and I walked to the end of our block, past the fire engine parked in the middle of the street, and to the Riverside Lawn. There were onlookers like us, many with their dogs, and row after row of uniformed officers, lining Riverside for blocks back and forth.
The organized part of the morning started with a bagpipe playing an American anthem – was it “Oh Say Can You See”? Was it “America the Beautiful”? I can’t remember clearly because it’s anchored in my memory in a haze of emotion. I was very happy with my foresight wearing sunglasses, because to my surprise, I cried. We had been asked to get up – no problem, because who wants to sit on the grass that you also know is a dog toilet? – and as the officers waved and we civilians put our hands on our hearts, I thought of the Al Chet we’ll be saying in a few days. It is not an identical motion, but it is surprisingly similar.
The heart of the ceremony bore witness to the reading of the list of names.
Because it was specifically a firefighters memorial, located at the firefighters memorial – a 1913 sculpture and fountain created by Attilio Piccirilli, the first of the five sculptor brothers and the only one, according to my good friend Wikipedia, to who Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia addressed, at least occasionally, as Uncle Peach – although all of the 9/11 dead were acknowledged and honored, only the names of the firefighters were read aloud.
Three hundred and forty-three firefighters died on September 11. Each man’s name was read aloud, along with his rank and unit, and each was punctuated by the ringing of a fire bell. Reading was paused twice, for a minute of silence, marking the moment each tower was touched. A few readers have shared the surprisingly long task of chanting each name; they had different voices, but each had a thick, unmistakably New York accent.
Some firefighters had been promoted posthumously. A few of the names were recognizable: Father Mychal Judge, who is now a candidate for holiness; Scott Davidson, father of famous SNL’s Pete Davidson, originally from Staten-Island, but most were not. All the firefighters were men; judging by their names, most were Irish or Italian, but there were some that sounded Polish, or Jews, or Latinos, or Africans, or simply unreplaceable Americans. Because it was in New York City, however, they were predominantly ethnic.
Because the read was so long, I found my mind wandering. The list was in alphabetical order, so I started to think about the alphabet, guessing which letters would have more names, and which second letter would probably follow the first. I was going to surf from there to the reality of names, the realization that every name had been a real person, and that every real person had acted with extraordinary courage and died surrounded by hideous evil. I was trying to imagine what they did, and I would fail. Then I returned to Alphabet Safety.
Then a bagpipe played “Amazing Grace”. When you hear the words it becomes a deeply Christian song, but when you just hear it playing on a bagpipe, it’s just deeply moving. It’s primitive. Again, I felt like I wasn’t the only person crying.
There was a group there; my memory tells me it was advertised as the Quantico Marine Group. At the end of the ceremony, he played Sousa. Maybe there is someone out there who doesn’t like a marching band playing Sousa – there are definitely a lot of people who won’t admit it, but I don’t believe them. It’s glorious, and it changes the mood.
After the ceremony, people spoke. Each of us has a story, primarily for us the lucky ones, not about some first-hand tragedy, but rather how quickly a normal day turns into something else.
My sister insists she doesn’t have a real story, but she does. She’s a librarian at a public school, and in 2001 she was working at Westinghouse High School in Brooklyn, right between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, just across the river from downtown Manhattan.
Shortly after the towers were hit, in the intense surreality of it all, driven by the need to do anything, anything, Lynn asked her manager if she could go donate blood, and he said yes. She therefore went to the Red Cross offices near the school. She arrived so early, she said, that she was able to wait in line in the small office; Soon, as more and more people realized that the only thing they needed to donate was blood, the queue stretched along the block. (It was so early that hardly anyone realized that there was almost no need for blood. There were very few injured survivors.)
Later, when Lynn returned to school, the bridges and tunnels leading out of town reopened and she and the rest of her carpool returned home to Staten Island. It was strange, she said, to be in one of the few cars on the road there. At one point, where the BQE bypasses Lower Manhattan, she and her friends had a clear view of the scorching, smoldering rubble.
Earlier this month, she said, she had looked for her blood donor card, and looked at it, really looked at it, for the first time in a long time. It was dated September 11, 2001.
Later on Shabbat, I met my neighbor next door. Jody is a dancer and choreographer – she once spent six weeks in Antarctica aboard a US Navy submarine, working on a dance she first performed on the ice floes, but it’s a story for again. Jody told me that her 10 year old daughter heard the bagpipes through their open window and asked her mother about the story of the day. Jody told her – every year she tells him a little bit more, she said – then her daughter puzzled her with the most basic question. “Why did they hate us so much? Evie asked. “I don’t know what to say to him, because I don’t know,” Jody replied, and that’s the painful truth.
Jody told me his own story of 9/11. She had walked through Central Park, fascinated by the blue sky and the perfect day. As she left the park and made her way to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, she saw knuckles of silent and stunned people smeared with ash walking towards her. It was so surreal, she said.
After the ceremony, we met some friends of ours, Israelis who live in our neighborhood, belong to our synagogue, and how we felt they belonged to the memorial. They also found themselves crying, they said. Like everyone else that day, we exchanged our 9/11 stories. Avi read, Michal ate breakfast, they took their children to school. It was the first day of school. It was a primary election day. It was just one day, until it wasn’t.
So Avi looked at the masses of men and women in uniform, who were no longer standing at attention, and said, “How many of these guys don’t believe what we believe? You don’t share our policy? Lots of them. “Judging from the polls and newspaper reports, he’s right. A lot of them think the presidential election was stolen. Many are not vaccinated and will fight to stay susceptible to the virus.
But that morning, none of it mattered. We were all there for one reason. Memory and hope had brought us together under another bright blue, cloudless September sky. Perhaps it was a vain hope that this feeling would endure, but at that point, it was true.