Fighting Fire with Fire: A Reflection for 9/11

American Flag Today is September 11, 2011. Ten years ago today, at 7:41 AM, the time it is right now as I write these words, I was getting ready for my fifth day of ninth grade at James Caldwell High School. And it was any other day. For many families, at 7:41 AM on September 11th, 2001, it was still just any other day.

My mother reminded me yesterday that part of my high school principal’s opening remarks for our graduation told us that we were the class that would forever remember that just a few days after we began our high school lives, the world would change entirely and eternally.

As evident in the essay I wrote for Tish’a B’Av just over a month ago, I have been thinking a lot about fire recently. We all remember that fateful day ten years ago, when we watched as the flames burst uncompassionately into the sky from the top floors of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We watched as both towers crumbled as hundreds and thousands of individuals said their final words. We were glued to the news, unsure of what the small black dots falling from the buildings’ sides were, until the newsman sickeningly told us those were people jumping from the high windows to their demises, thinking it was the only way not to be burned alive in the melting structures.

When my father and I crossed the lower level of the George Washington Bridge the following Sunday, on our way into the Upper West Side for the second week of Prozdor (Hebrew High School), I remember not being able to see the Hudson River or Lower Manhattan; the air was still too thick with ashes. We could smell them. And I remember in the Sundays that followed, when we made the same drive, we could see as the ashen curtain to our right gradually revealed a potently empty landscape.

This Friday night, I lit candles for Shabbat. I felt the nauseating parallel I felt ten years ago, between the image of the tame, inviting twin flames of my Shabbat candles and the raging twin flames bursting from the towers.

Last night, I watched as the community celebrated Waterfire, when bonfires are lit along the Woonasquatucket River in downtown Providence, Rhode Island — a beautiful sight. As the flames licked the night sky last night, along a backdrop of the towering but quaint offices for which Downtown Providence is known, all I could see was the distance between the fire and those buildings. And how amazing it is that they can coexist safely so long as they never touch.

My composition of this essay was paused here by minyan this morning. We recited everything as usual, except we didn’t recite Tachanun, asking God to forgive our sins. As proscribed by our Sages, Jews always omit Tachanun at times of joy and times of mourning. I told the story of what I remember of ten years ago, my most potent memory of learning Cantor Joel Caplan’s El Malei, which he composed that day, for our choir, in memory of those deceased. The piece was to be sung antiphonally in Hebrew by the Cantor and English by the choir. I remember sitting on the floor in the chapel at Congregation Agudath Israel as no one made any noise except for this music. I remember it was raining.

I remember nine years ago, on the first anniversary, sitting after dark on the football field at James Caldwell High School, with all the stands packed and people standing along the fences for a communal commemoration, as Cantor Caplan instructed the crowd to insert the names, when we paused at the proper time, of those who they knew who had perished that day a year earlier. After about five seconds of complete silence, one invisible person from the back right of the football field, from the dark, yelled a name. From across the field, another. For the next ninety seconds, what felt like an eternity, names of loved ones and friends were announced, shouted. Let us remember all of them. Let us remember all of those who died that day. With tear-filled eyes the Cantor looked at us and said, “For the sake of all those people, we have to finish this piece. We have to.” With a big gulp and a deep breath, we finished:

“Merciful God, grant perfect peace in Your sheltering Presence, among the Holy and Pure, the souls of all those we remember today, for blessing… Embrace them under Your sheltering wings forever, and bind their souls in the Bonds of Life. They are with God. May they rest in Peace.”

Today, and every year on this day, let us remember them.
Let us embrace the fire in our hearts and feel the burn, the scar, the imprint, that day left on our souls.
Let us be united in our hatred for those who perpetrated this heinous crime on our nation.
Let us be united in our forgiveness and our vulnerability.
Let us be united in brotherhood, and pledge to help each other through all the times we feel fractured, individually and nationally.
Let us create sacred space together, in which we can worship and praise God while at the same time asking Him why He would allow such a thing to happen.
Let us know Peace, soon, and in our day.

They Have Aspirations, Too

This summer, I am working at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, in a whole conglomerate of jobs. I am on the music staff, I am teaching, and I am working with Tikvah, the edah (division) in camp for campers with moderate special needs. Overall, the whole experience is rewarding, but I am learning most from my Tikvah campers.

I’ve worked with special education programs since I was in ninth grade, already eight years ago. I’ve worked with many different kinds of children and adults with many different kinds of disabilities: learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, autism, hemihypertrophy, CHARGE syndrome, and Down’s syndrome are only a few of these. But being in camp with these kids is much different than being in an after-school program or in an in-school classroom setting. Here, in camp, we get to see how these children exist outside of a classroom; how they thrive in everyday life activities; and where their failings are so we can help them stand on their own two feet. In a classroom we talk at our kids a lot. Here, we talk with them.

As many encounters as I’ve had with kids with special needs, I disappoint myself to think that it never struck me how these kids have big aspirations for their lives just like the rest of us do. A graduate of the program and of the additional vocational program told me over lunch during staff week this summer that he wants to be a chemistry teacher when he graduates from college, and is striving as hard as he can in school to be a chemistry major (something that I could probably never do successfully). A current camper expressed to me today that he would never want to come back to this camp on staff because he’d rather be a counselor at a basketball camp. Another wants to be an artist, and she already designs some of her own unique products, which she sells to contribute 50% of her profits to an organization doing work with children who have brain tumors. Another one of my campers told me last week she was a cheerleader in middle school, and would love to be a dancer. And one of the boys, like in any boys’ bunk, wants to grow up to be a rock-and-roll drummer, having been lead in the marching band at his school.

Even we, who encounter individuals with special needs every day, forget sometimes that our kids are “normal” kids in more ways than we can imagine. They strive to mentor each other, to teach each other, to learn the most for themselves, and to be the best version of themselves that they possibly can be. They have hormones like the rest of us. They have crushes on boys (or girls), they enjoy hanging out with friends, they play sports. They sing, they laugh, they get hyper, they cry. I do the same.

Ultimately, as we work with any sort of individuals, whether they have been identified as having special needs or not, we must remember that they aspire. They aspire to do great things just like we do. They aspire to have great successes, and they perspire as they do. It goes back to that wonderful instruction I hung on my wall through my four years at BU, a lesson to everyone: “Stand tall, reach for the stars, and always wear deodorant.”

Can You See Me? Do I Want You To?

As I spend time traveling back and forth between Boston and New York, I’ve seen a lot of people of different experiences. Black, white, doctor, lawyer, accountant, musician, rich, poor; I’ve seen them all. Each person is the product of his or her own unique history.

As I see each of these people, as I travel with them and share the streets on which I walk with them, I often feel like I want them to recognize me. I see Jewish couples walking down the street, clearly religious Jewish couples (the women in skirts and hats or sheitels, the men in kippot), and I wish that they could just as easily recognize me as Jewish. I stand next to a man boarding the bus with his trombone in tow, and I hear the echo inside of my head, “I’m a musician, too! I love music! I wish he would see me and talk to me.”

I am a young woman who loves being Jewish, who loves music, who loves art, who loves being silly and talking to people. At this point in my life, the only part of that whole set that strangers can outwardly see is that I’m a woman. And even then, in this day and age, does not mean that I have anything in common with the woman next to me. Yes, I frequently wear a necklace around my neck that has my name spelled in Hebrew; and on Shabbat perhaps I’m recognizably Jewish (though strangely, based on the kippah that I often wear). I occasionally wear earrings with music notes dangling from my ears. I sometimes rehearse music riding the subway on the way to a rehearsal. I have also had to travel with my guitar recently, back and forth from school this semester. All of these identify who I am; but what about when I am not defined by all of that? What about when I am walking down the street in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt? How recognizable am I? And would it be to my advantage or disadvantage that others could recognize me and place me into a category like the categories in which I have placed the people who surround me?

For a while in high school and at the beginning of college, I toyed with the idea of wearing long skirts all the time, adopting garb that would identify me, on the outside, as Jewish. Ultimately for practicality’s sake, I decided against converting my whole wardrobe in the end. However, I am left with a fascinating insight into the world in which I live, after meditating on my own thought process:

The fact that I could even consider consciously identifying myself in public as Jewish says something profound about the American society in which I live: I do not have to fear that others might recognize me as Jewish.

For whatever reason, I often have great conversations with cab drivers, internationally. In one such interesting conversation, sometime this fall, I asked a cab driver in Boston if he could please drive me to the Jewish Community Center in Newton, MA. He asked me if I was Jewish, to which I honestly answered, “yes”. Turns out, this cab driver happened to be a Russian Jewish immigrant to the United States, having survived Nazism and Communism in Russia. He said to me, “You don’t know how lucky you are. Someone asks you if you are Jewish, and you don’t worry that the one who is asking is going to beat you up if you say ‘yes’. That is why I moved here. Because that it what I want for my children.” As he drove, he and I continued to talk about the virtues of having grown up in a world that allows me to be fearless, that allows me not to assume the worst when someone simply questions a part of my identity, as they had to in Eastern Europe just sixty years ago.

As usual, the question remains unanswered. Do I want to be recognizable? In this day and age, I can be, without being terrified that something awful will come of it. Do I want people to be able to look at me and read my identity like a piece of newspaper? Well, maybe not. Perhaps that is the joy of getting to know people: you can’t really tell who they are without exploring a bit under their skin first. You can’t easily assume anything about others before you have said “hello”. Maybe, then, in different contexts it is nice to be identified, but in other contexts, it’s good just to have something to say after you’ve made first introductions. In a day and age that I sit and ponder how society looks at me, I am thankful that at least it isn’t any cause for concern.

American Jews or Jewish Americans?

In response to the recent PBS Special called “The Jewish Americans,” Shari Rabin posted in her Chutzpah Chronicles, part of the Washington Post’s “Faithbook,” an entry entitled “My Jewish Identity”. In it, Rabin meditates on Faithbook’s question, THE question, as she dubs it: 

“We know what ‘Jewish identity’ has meant in the past. What will it mean in the future? How does a minority religion retain its roots and embrace change?” 

Rabin expresses her concern that, in this day and age, we are first Americans and then Jews: while we don’t have to choose to do activities that distinguish us as American, we do have to consciously choose activities and friends that allow us to distinguish ourselves as Jewish. We have to actively seek out those Jews in our immediate world, and have to specifically live in places where we know there will be other Jews, lest we assimilate into secular society. I agree with Rabin’s assessment. But, as I posted as a brief comment to her above post, I am more concerned with a different, yet related subquestion: Are we Jewish Americans, as the title of the PBS special  indicates? Or, are we American Jews? Is there a difference?

In discussing this with my father last night, he neatly averted a clear response to the question by saying, “I am Jewish, and I am an American. They’re both adjectives. Why does one have to be more important than the other?” His answer rings somewhat true. I am an American. I have American values, believe in American government, and I thrive while living under American public law. But the core of me is Jewish. I identify with other Jews, anywhere in the world, while I don’t have the same connection with other Americans around the world. I live my life Jewishly, and I keep kosher, keep Shabbat, and let halakha rule my life. On the other hand, my Americana also defines my Judaism: American social values are the reason the Conservative Movement within Judaism started in the first place. The idea of “Tradition and Change” is an idea that can only rule if we are in a society that allows us to practice both, a luxury that not everyone in every country has.

To be a “Jewish American,” I would have to let the “American,” the noun of my existence, be influenced by my “Jewish” adjective nature. To be an “American Jew,” though, allows myself to be defined as a “Jew,” the true noun of my existence, and the core of my character, to be influenced by my “American” adjective nature.

I am an American Jew.