I will never hear a bagpipe playing “Amazing Grace” without thinking of its performance at a funeral for dogs that died at ground zero—attended by their canine survivors. In fact, I will flee from any bagpipe in the hands of a kilted civil servant for some time to come. The memory of girder crosses raised from the ruins, books with titles like Chicken Soup for the Soul of America, and endless evocations of the phrase “Let’s roll!” makes me want to move to France, where they know how to put on a good funeral and get on with dressing well. Mourning in America never ends until the last commemorative coin is sold. Closure is another word for nothing left to show.
But I’m aware of a mood below the merch, a deeply private melancholy. There’s a potential in this sadness, especially when it leads to meditation. 9-11 has the power to evoke a meaning beyond the sanctioned mandate of righteousness and renewal—if we let our sorrow show.
I first sensed this potential on the day of the attack, when thousands of people streamed past my home. There were no cars in the street, no subways to take, no stores open or ATMs to be found, and when I joined the crowd—gripped by a need not to be alone—I had the odd sensation that, under the terror and confusion, there was a certain pleasure in the total suspension of the ordinary; a somber joy in strolling through the streets, sharing bottled water, and contemplating the terrible event. The cafés were full (there was nowhere else to go), but the crowds were quiet in a way New Yorkers never are. The silence, the solicitude, and the sense that human flecks were in the dusty air resonated with memories that had nothing to do with 9-11. It felt as if I’d suddenly arrived at a place where everyone is Jewish, just in time for the special occasion when shabbos coincides with Yom Kippur—the highest of holy days.
This year, the 11th falls right in the middle of the week that runs from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, which Jews call the Days of Awe. And the holidays begin, even more auspiciously, on the Sabbath. I doubt that the networks will notice this confluence, and that’s a shame. The spirit of these days could do much to enrich what promises to be nonstop glop.
I’m not talking about fasting and prayer. That’s only one way to achieve the state of reflection at the heart of Yom Kippur. But there’s also a domestic side of this day. In my family, it meant turning off the TV (a major sacrifice for us), wearing real clothing at home instead of the usual shmattes, strolling through the neighborhood, and trekking to the synagogue at sunset to hear the shofar blown. When it comes to primal sound, there’s nothing like a ram’s horn. The Hasidim would riot, but I wish there were a way to blow a thousand shofars at ground zero. It would summon up all the feelings that chicken-soup inspirationals are meant to suppress.
Aside from its penitential rituals, Yom Kippur allows people to remember the dead, stripping away the defenses against lasting grief that are such a specialty in this society. And sorrow is the true measure of 9-11. It teaches the temporality of not just life but buildings, even skylines. If they are mortal, these structures are also animate—alive with meaning and memory. The view from your window is all the more precious because it may vanish some day, along with everything you hold ordinary. That’s the lesson in the dust that rained down on that aw(e)ful day.
As for atonement: Forget it. This is not a culture that feels it has anything to apologize for, especially in regard to 9-11. I won’t argue the point, especially since I regard repentance as an action, not an attitude. But there is an alternative to the pomp and kitsch that will be on vainglorious display. Yom Kippur exhorts us to confront the inevitability of sin and death; to cast out the former (with bread on the water) and plead for a reprieve from the latter. These are highly personal issues that involve neither public confession nor collective resolve. In that sense, Yom Kippur works against the most likely use of this commemoration: to focus feelings on rituals that feed the appetite for war without end. Yom Kippur inhibits retribution—if only for one High Holy Day.
Of course, there are occasions in most religions that provide the same opportunity. They just don’t happen to coincide with 9-11.
A shift in the significance of a holiday is always an important moment in American culture. Consider Thanksgiving, which became a national celebration of abundance during the Great Depression; or Halloween, which evolved in the sensate ’70s from a kids’ masquerade to a carnival of erotic self-creation; or Martin Luther King Day, which was meant to evoke the ideal of racial harmony but is now observed mostly by people of color and civics teachers. It isn’t clear yet what 9-11 will come to represent. It could fade into the ether like Arbor Day or emerge as a rampart of Fortress America. But there are signs that under the flags and bagpipes a different meaning is struggling to emerge.
There may be more of Yom Kippur in 9-11 than meets the media’s eye. Consider the decision to suspend Broadway shows, and the impulse to curtail flying on that day. Both are practical responses that also resonate with Jewish tradition. Though the schools will be open and the labors of life will go on, I suspect there will be an implicit pause in these routines. People will be glued to television, which is as close to contemplation as many Americans get. Selling will abate and entertainment will recede before an array of ceremonial words and images. The absence of rhythms that are usually provided by the march of shows and ads will have a hypnotic effect, not unlike an Andy Warhol film. But in this movie, the icon will be missing. Is there anything more Jewish than worshiping at a ruin?
What if everything stopped on 9-11, just as it did during the attack? What if we took the day as an occasion to stroll the streets, to be with our families, to reflect or pray? Of course, I don’t expect people to turn off the TV. (Are we not Americans?) But there’s a way to watch the pageant without giving in to its obfuscating tropes. If we resist righteousness, we may discover acuity; 9-11 can become a Day of Attunement. I’ll sound the shofar to that.