How ironic that as Jews worldwide begin the 10 days of awe marking the High Holy Days, the nation honors the fallen victims of the September 11th tragedy. And as our family prays to be inscribed in the sacred, Safer Chaim (Book of Life) for another year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we recall that nearly 3,000 other human beings never got that chance.
That year, the high holy days came 6 days later and my tears were hardly dry, especially from reading hundreds of vignettes about victims and their families. In my weekly column I shared my sorrow at the holidays and the painful memories of having been in Manhattan and witnessing a glorious summer day turn into an inferno as the World Trade Center towers burned and then collapsed in piles of rubble and soot, burying victims in a fiery grave.
I questioned how we could celebrate a sweet Rosh Hashanah (New Year) when hundreds of loved ones still searched hospitals or waited for word on the discovery of a victim or even a part of a victim. But on the night before Rosh Hashana, September 17, as has been our family’s tradition, we poured wine and sliced a Challah and fresh apples. And we drizzled honey onto the bread and apples and prayed for a special new year and a safe year.
Over the next 10 days, firefighters discovered more victims, rivers of tears flowed and ,families began to bury their loved ones and say goodbye as more information emerged about the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks.
I decided to fast on Yom Kippur for the first time in years and took advantage of a ticket to daytime services, offered by a friend because I needed to be in a holy place and hear words of inspiration from our rabbi. Later in the day at the Memorial Service (Yizkor), I choked back tears as the rabbi described the event again and the loss of husbands, wives, adult children and first responders.
At the closing service Ni’ilah, where we ask forgiveness for sins and for a chance to be inscribed for another year in the book of life, I found myself confused and worried that the events of 9/11 may have only been the beginning. I suddenly wanted to be home, surrounded and supported by family.
So I was thankful that we were doing our traditional breaking the fast celebration with our close friends, Eden and Howard, and their family. As always, the delicious food and the great company made for a special evening.
When I returned to my commuting the following morning, there was still something surreal about the entire experience. There were some reports that commuter trains like ours might be another target for creative terrorists, especially because of the unknown places in tunnels beneath Grand Central terminal.
My friend Bob, with whom I commuted on the morning of the attacks, was on the train that first morning after the holidays and we had a chance to catch up. We couldn’t help reflecting on the long walk we had taken late in the day of the attacks with the line of other commuters, many of whom were covered in soot from the downed towers. And we both spoke of the 100s of mini-obituaries covering the pages of the times.
As we walked across the terminal, fingers of sunlight filtering through the windows above almost the same way they looked that morning before the attacks, it was hard to feel like this was our normal routine. And seeing the soldiers throughout the terminal brought a whole new reality to commuting.
I could barely face our receptionist, Gerry, whose son had died that morning. He was working on the 105th floor of the North Tower and had called just as news of the attacks came on. I took the call, but our receptionist hadn’t arrived. By the time she came in, called her son’s cell phone and spoke to him one last time, our office was becoming more chaotic. She was in my prayers during that Yizkor service on Yom Kippur. Searchers eventually found enough remains so Gerry could have a funeral and some closure.
The memories of September 11th are never far away for me, especially when the holidays come so close to the tragedy itself. It’s so hard to envision a sweet new year when memories are so painful. But it’s also so important to be with loved ones and friends and begin the holiday with apples and honey.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com.