Thursday, September 11, 2008
September 11 Remembered
Seven years ago this morning I observed things out of my office window I never imagined a person could witness, let alone witness with intimate friends and colleagues while the world watched it all unfold on TV. Because my own 9/11 experience is inexorably linked with the Museum’s 9/11 experience, I asked to guest blog today.
I am the first to admit that in the days leading up to Sept. 11 I am irascible and irrational. I try not to read articles that are going to make me relive each and every moment of that day. And yet, while I am in my self-care mode, I will still be glued to some new television revelation on the National Geographic Channel or Discovery, watching those same fireballs and gasping as I did viewing them from our 25th floor offices on Lower Broadway.
I anticipate these reactions and I endure them. And though I experience them the same way every year, there is one other constant for me. I cannot imagine being anyplace else on this particular morning other than MJH. My work day begins in the following way. I place kosher comfort food (read Entenmann’s coffee cakes) in the two kitchens for the staff to enjoy when they get to work. I place a yahrzeit candle, an explanation of how and why the Museum remembers, and a photo of the Museum and WTC (the one you see above taken by Peter Goldberg in 2000) on a small table in the lobby of the entrance. I send e-mails to former staff, letting them know I am thinking of them, and wondering what it is like to be in a new office with strangers on the day that made us all blur the lines between professional and personal so many years ago. And I look for Frank Camporeale, our building engineer, to wish him a happy birthday.
The Museum’s 9/11 institutional experience is recorded in the cover story of the Sept/October 2002 issue of Museum News. In it we acknowledge that in the wake of Sept. 11 our roles as chroniclers of the Holocaust and 20th century Jewish experience changed. We were no longer just guardians of history; we were participants in history.
Some staff members gave testimony to the Columbia University September 11 Oral History Archives Project. My interviews were conducted in December 2001 and June 2002. I wondered how I could work at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust and not bear witness. How could I work here and not believe in some modicum of hope for the future? Our Museum collection contains the last known physical objects of some Holocaust survivors. For some, it is only their memories we store. To know that this community survived the unimaginable made this experience bearable in some small way, and from them I drew strength.
On September 12, 2001, I called my friend Norbert, one of our dear Gallery Educators. Norbert survived 11 concentration camps, and hugs and kisses you like he hasn’t seen you in years, even if it has just been a few days. I called him that day because I needed clarity, I needed someone in my life to say, “You will get through this and you will come through it the other side.” When I called him, he was working in his garden. He was nurturing the earth and preparing it for a bountiful season. His commitment to the human race is unparalleled. His ability to see the good in people and to take joy in each day that life brings is something I try to emulate, if not in deed, in word.
According to Jewish tradition, the anniversary of a death is a day of reflection to remember what was lost. The observance of this day is called yahrzeit. Today we commemorate the September 11 attacks, which took place on 23 Elul in the Hebrew calendar.
The Museum’s proximity to the site of the tragedy, its identity as a downtown cultural institution, and its mission of remembrance compel us to reflect and remember with the community, our neighbors, and the nation.
As we think about those who lost their lives that day, we say to their families: Zai-kher tzaddik livrakha — may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.
And may we all go from strength to strength.