Choose life

I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

This year, when I walked my dogs early in the morning of the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I saw cars parked on the sidewalk on Riverside Drive and fire trucks lining the street. I saw firefighters in waterproof coats and police officers in dress uniforms and dignitaries in somber dress-up dark suits.

This sign was posted on the fountain at the Fireman’s Memorial on Riverside Drive on September 12, 2001.I saw three wreaths standing on large easels in front of the large marble fountain, with its ram’s-horned human-faced mouth spitting out a constant stream of water into the basin, with its bas-relief of horses pulling fire wagons, flanked by sculptures of grieving women comforting dying firemen.

Under an atypically foggy, drizzly sky, instead of the usual jeweled deep flawless ironic blue, the city’s uniformed services were getting ready to commemorate September 11 in front of the Firefighters’ Memorial at the end of my block.

Although September 11 usually falls near the holidays — in 2001, Rosh Hashanah was on September 17, nearly a week after the attack — this year they were on the same day.

There’s a lot to think about there, about the universality of one of the themes of Rosh Hashanah — that it’s the birthday of the world — and the expansiveness and openness of that celebration.

The attacks of September 11 were the result of the opposite — of tribalism, of hatred, of religiosity turned monstrous and weaponized.

The response to September 11, from the first responders, from the would-be blood donors, from all of us who gave whatever we could, was unifying. It was an outpouring of sympathy and love.

Rosh Hashanah asks us to remember, to try to heal, to try to be better, to open our hearts, to admit our mistakes, to accept that we are not always in control. The attacks of September 11 showed us what could happen when we do not do that, and the response to it showed what can happen when we do.

I live on the 13th floor of an apartment building, on a hill high above Riverside Drive. But still, even that high up, as I got ready for shul I could hear the skirls of bagpipes. It is a piercing, powerful, unmistakable sound.

A bagpipe is a primitive instrument, at least originally made of the skin of an animal, with at least one pipe coming out of it. The sound it makes is not sophisticated, but it clutches at your insides — your heart and your stomach — and squeezes.

A shofar is even more primitive, just a ram’s horn (like the ones in the fountain). Often they’re beautiful; they grow in curls and they shine. They make you understand that the animals that grew them were huge and powerful in ways that people are not. They trumpet life and death even before they are blown.

Both the shofar and the bagpipe make sounds that bypass your head and go straight to your heart.

This year, they both are telling us to pay attention.

The Torah reading on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah tells us that we can choose life or death, and that we should choose life. Both the shofar and the bagpipe tell us that too. We can choose to follow the path of anger, of divisiveness, of hatred to which some of our national leaders are shepherding us, or we can follow the path of unity in diversity to which our better natures beckon us.

Please, this year let’s choose life.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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