Looking Up Again

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New One World Trade Center in Skyline

An interesting coincidence this weekend. The anniversary of 9/11 sharing billing with Rosh Hashanah. Two days of remembrance: one marking such terrible endings; the other marking the birthday of the world. On Sunday evening the Jewish New Year will usher in the Days of Awe, a time to seek forgiveness and make amends with God and man. And sometimes with where we’re from.

My family probably doesn’t know my 9/11 story. Having reunited after 20 years in April, in the past six months the subject hasn’t been fully covered among us. I told my story on my blog long ago. I recorded it with the StoryCorps project. And then I decided it was time to move on. There was no expectation of ever living in–or potentially even being in–New York again.

Then suddenly the embrace of family, the pull of home, and the decision to celebrate Passover with my first visit to my hometown since 2007. And there I was in April standing at Ground Zero for the first time in eight years. I had never seen the 9/11 memorial in person. The last time I stood there, the site was still a yawningly deep pit of dirt, rock, and construction equipment.

In 1995, I deliberately absented myself from my family because of my siblings (of blessed memory.) In 2003, I deliberately absented myself from my hometown because of 9/11. I never turned back towards either one because I didn’t think I could handle reconnecting, and I was afraid to learn what had become of people and places while I was away.

My greatest fear was the potential pain of reconnecting–and more importantly, of remembering what used to be–if I ever reopened those doors. Every one of the few times I had reason to be in New York before this year, there were two things I could never bring myself to do. I never looked for my family. And I never looked up at where the Twin Towers used to be. Even throughout the construction of the memorial and the new One World Trade Center, I averted my attention from stories and photos. In every way possible, I just couldn’t go there.

Standing with Ryan next to the memorial’s South Pool, I thought about the enormity of the waterfall and the void it surrounded, the seemingly endless display of names, and for the first time in years, I sobbed. But when I was done, I immediately did what I had found myself doing over and over throughout my reunion visit to my hometown.

I looked up.

It’s useless for a native New Yorker like I am to try and describe the feeling of looking up where the World Trade Center towers used to be and finding nothing there. The erasure of something so significant was like the loss of a constant, as if gravity or light were suddenly no longer in existence.

We mark the memory, but we can never replace what once was. We can only move on. Some of us do that by refusing to remember. Some of us, even after all this time, are still mourning. Some of us stay and rebuild. Our hearts lead us forward in the manner that we can bear.

For so long I was afraid that the sight of anything else in the space once occupied by the towers would be no better or less jarring than the visual void after 9/11. I was wrong. It isn’t as if the design of the new One World Trade Center wasn’t controversial, or compromised by security concerns, or incomplete due to cost overruns. All of those things happened. It’s not the most beautiful tower ever built, nor the tallest.

But every time I looked up at it, I understood. It wasn’t about the building at all. It was about the people. The words that launched a thousand Passover sermons sum up well the feeling that the new tower gave me throughout my seder-less Pesach weekend. Philosopher Michael Walzer’s passage from the book, Exodus and Revolution–a passage which also appears as an alternate reading in the modern Reform Jewish prayerbook:

“Standing on the parted shores of history
We still believe what we were taught
Before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;
That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
That there is a better place, a promised land;
That the winding way to that promise
Passes through the wilderness.
That there is no way to get from here to there
Except by joining hands, marching together.”

While I wasn’t looking, my city had joined hands and marched forward towards a better day. Every time I glanced at the healed skyline, instead of loss, I felt kinship with my New York family and friends, and a sense of my own healing I never thought would come. And after so many years, I smiled.

The memory of what was is a blessing. Yet, so is the miracle of what has come to be. May you let both blessings in. As we remember, as we enter a new year, and always.

Shanah Tovah.

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