This Week at The Times of Israel: September 11

I opened my email inbox to see the following subject line, “This Week at the Community Jewish Center: September 11.” I clicked on the message to see what events were planned to honor the day. My eyes scanned the body of the text: bagels and lox, High Holiday prep, candle lighting times, a film screening…” Where was the event for September 11 advertised in the subject line? It took me a moment to realize that there was no event. I quickly realized that this email was just like all the other emails whose subject lines read, “This Week at the Community Jewish Center: July 17” or “April 10” or any other Monday starting out the week. I felt suddenly afraid. The attack was 16 years ago. Could it be that people were starting to forget?   

This fear prompted me to root through my stuff and pull out my first diary — all 366 pages of it. I say my first diary because I have kept a journal consistently since I was 7-years-old. Each diary has lasted me about five years a piece, so I don’t write every day and don’t always write a novel each time. My first diary was a Victorian-style notebook called “Golden Days.” I kept a rose petal sachet in between the pages for many years and to this day, it still smells of roses.

On September 11, 2001, I wrote several pages in a blunt number 2 pencil: “Oh diary! Our Nation got attacked. They are comparing this to Pearl Harbor. WE ARE AT WAR.”

In the margins, I had adorned my entry with an American flag with scissors running through it, slicing it in half. Then I made a sad/angry face that went across the binding of both pages, and finished off the illustrations with a picture of the vicious allergy shots that I had to start getting the next week. By this point in my diary, I had been sick for a few years. The doctors finally figured out the one of pieces of the puzzle was a severe allergy to mold, so I had to move out of my fixer-upper house to stay with friends.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was heading to Abington Memorial Hospital in Philadelphia to have an endoscopy. My last memory before going under the influence of the anesthesia was the news broadcast and a male voice saying, “The second… [hesitation] tower has just been hit.”  Just a minute before, a nurse had said, “Turn that TV off! She’s just a child.” And some other angry worker replied, “Don’t touch the TV. Don’t you see what is happening?” So the TV stayed on, and from the plastic rim of the mask that they put over my mouth and nose, I saw a live recording of the plane that hit the second tower. Then I fell asleep.

By September 14, I provided my diary with more information, quoting a speech by a man that I called, Ben Laden: “He said, ‘I am not behind this. But I am glad they did it. I support them. And, you can kill me because there is a bunch of Ben Ladens out there.’ War is terrible. I always prayed it would come after I died. Practically the whole world will be fighting NOW!!!”

These declarations were interrupted by things like, “I am so sick. I am turning into a blubber-baby. In five minutes, I can call mom back.” I know now that the panic attacks and “blubber fests” (as I called them) were just the normal consequence of being sick and living away from home for the first time in combination of being traumatized by the recent events.

My experience of September 11, 2001 shaped my life indelibly and made me want to live with a deeper intensity and drive. As in the case of many others of my generation, my growing-up years were marked by an awareness of the waves of terrorism that plague society with increasing frequency. I was raised with a respect for those who risk their lives every day to serve in the military and other first-responders, like the law enforcement and fire fighters. I also learned that in Israel, the threat of terrorism is aspect of everyday life.

I’ll never forget when my brother and I were on the bus waiting to depart from Jerusalem station to Beer Sheva, when there was a loud bang from the other side of the garage. Admittedly, everyone on the bus was startled by the sound, but one young man went berserk. I watched as he began to shake and cry as he tried to climb out of the bus window and the over the top of the seats. Several people in the seats next to him recognized he was having PTSD and immediately put their hands on his knees and shoulders. The passenger closest to him placed his hand on his chest and spoke reassuringly, “It’s okay. It’s okay. There’s nothing wrong. Breathe.” The tenderness of this interaction made me realize that there are many ways to fight for freedom, sometimes it is as simple as giving someone a hug.

One of my friends, Jay Epstein, graduated with his undergraduate degrees from the University of Virginia this past May and joined the Israeli infantry. Today, September 11, 2017 is his first experience of the anniversary of the attack from the perspective of a soldier. He shared with me some of his thoughts:

“Serving in the IDF on 9/11 [makes me] feel like I’m doing my part, (my tiny, tiny, tiny part) to defend democracy and freedom across the world. As an American Jew serving in the IDF, I feel not only that I serve the state of Israel but also the values that both Israel and the USA share: liberty, freedom, and democracy. And in that way I stand in solidarity with my American counterparts serving in the US military.”

Jay’s “tiny part” to serve is more of a commitment than most people will make, but it is not the only way to serve. Many of my friends and loved ones became civil servants as a result of September 11, 2001, and although I didn’t follow in that vein, like Jay and others, I too try to do my “tiny, tiny, tiny” part — mostly in the realm of education. No matter how we choose to promote freedom, it is vital that we do not get caught up in the busyness of life and unwittingly forget the past. We must not be afraid to remember the times when we felt most vulnerable in order that we may have the foresight and the energy to respond even in the most difficult of circumstances with valor, wisdom, tenderness, and even sacrifice.

About the Author
Judith K. Lang Hilgartner completed her PhD as a Rachel Winer Manin Jewish Studies Fellow from the University of Virginia. She specializes in Latin American Jewish Studies, as well as Sephardic Studies worldwide. She is particularly interested in issues of exile and trauma in post-Holocaust poetry. Judith also specializes in early modern Iberian studies. She is a writer, translator, composer, teacher, and polyglot who finds herself living in the American South. Adventure is her middle name.
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