Jewish New Year

The following, translated into Dutch, was first published as "Ongelukkig met het oude jaar - onzeker over het nieuwe" in the September 2002 (nr. 1 Rosj Hasjana tisjri 5763) issue of Levend Joods Geloof, the magazine for the Liberal Jewish Community in the Netherlands. It appears here for the first time in the original English.

Unhappy with the Old Year, Unsure of the New

by Barry Drogin

As a Jewish New Yorker, it was comforting having the academic school year align with the Jewish New Year. My summer vacation over and my children advanced a school grade, I would look back on the previous year and make plans for the next, as new cultural seasons would start as well. I would obtain a new calendar and, my fate for the new year sealed in the Book of Life, look forward to a new beginning.

This September brings a new anniversary, a commemoration that ineluctably draws closer, my emotions mixed with dread and anticipation. This year and every year thereafter, the Jewish New Year will accompany the anniversary of September 11, 2001, 9/11, when nearly three thousand innocent friends, relatives and colleagues were killed in an act of horror that will haunt me forever.

Judaism is full of yearly cycles the reading of the Torah, the holidays, yahrzeits. As a son who has lost both parents, I can speak to how Judaism affords me the opportunity to remember my loved ones without being consumed by grief during the rest of the year. A yahrzeit is like a package, a container, where I can respectfully give myself over, for one day, to the floods of thoughts and emotions associated with the experience of such an overwhelming loss.

The feeling of September 11 is not so easily contained. The World Trade Center is not a gravesite I visit once a year - it is an enormous absence, a hole in my skyline, rerouting subway lines and halting commuter trains. Every fire and police house in my neighborhood is festooned with constantly refreshed memorials to lost comrades. The colds and asthma that normally afflicted my family in this most urban of environments has evolved into pneumonia and chronic bronchitis, otherwise known as "World Trade Center cough."

With and without the terrorist warnings and news stories, I am on constant alert, what psychologists call "hyper-vigilance." I feel the presence of the police and transit workers posted in some subway stations, as well as the absence in other locations. I try to escape on long weekends in the suburbs or countryside - many of my friends have simply escaped altogether.

If I leave, like them, I will be the Jewish New Yorker who ran away from New York after 9/11. If I stay, at least I have a chance of returning to what I was before: merely a Jewish New Yorker. It's what I am. Where else would I go?

And so I look up in the air every time I hear a helicopter or airplane pass overhead. Trucks backfire, sirens scream, the air conditioner turns on, and my imagination races ahead of me. The simplest sentiment makes me tear up, the smallest loss devastates me.

Like a Holocaust survivor, I bear witness to tourists and out-of-town friends. I remember out of a sense of duty, although I know it might be better for my mental health to try and forget.

I heard the second plane roar over my left shoulder, and saw it plow into the second tower, killing hundreds instantly. My wife, like Lot turning as we fled, saw the second tower collapse, killing hundreds more. My oldest son, pulled in a panic from one of his first days in kindergarten, saw both towers spewing black smoke into the bright blue morning sky.

Turning to brown, the cloud lasted a month; the photographs of the missing, plastered on walls and poles, lasted longer. Weeks later, my son pointed in the wrong direction towards a morning fog and said, "Look, Daddy, it's the World Trade Center."

Like the legend that children of the plague played Ring Around the Rosie, he plays hero and doctor; I am both jealous and shocked at the ease at which he expresses in his drawings and play what I have so much difficulty facing. Having seen more than he can handle, he regresses, has trouble sleeping, wets the bed. I know he is resilient and full of hope, if not so innocent as before. He will move on. The thousands of children who lost a parent have not had it so easy.

I know a couple with a newborn who lost their home, colleagues who dodged debris and were caught in the dust cloud, friends who evacuated and returned to homes without power or telephone service or water. Although I did not know any of the victims, I have friends who did.

I know a wife who lived through the horror of waiting hours for her husband, who did come home, but covered in dust, shell-shocked. He wakes up screaming in the night from his nightmares.

We who are left are the survivors. Normal has shifted. The songs and prayers bring us comfort, or we feel them more intensely than before. On Rosh Hashanah it is written in the Book of Life, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed who will live and who will die; who will perish by fire and who by water; who shall be at ease and who shall be disturbed.

We will pray that repentance, prayer and righteousness will avert the severe decree for the year to follow, because in the year before, we were all disturbed. All of us. Each and every one of us.

Link back to My Personal September 11 Page.

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Last Updated: September 11, 2011