9/11 and The Paradox of Memory

12 September 2014 
17 Elul 5774  
 

Shalom Chaverim,  

In the midst of the high energy and excitement of our first full week of school, our community came together yesterday to commemorate the horrific events of 9/11. Gann has always strived to apply the deeply Jewish notions of memory and ceremony to our lives as Americans, as we mark and honor civic holidays and formative events in our nation’s history.  

Our commemoration opened with a long period of silence during which the level of respect for the sanctity of the day was palpable. For high school students living in a fast-paced, technological world where it sometimes feels as if there is no space for silence and sometimes seems that nothing is sacred, moments like these remind me that all of us, even high school students, are endowed with the human capacity for yir’ah (awe, reverence).  

History teacher Dr. Jonathan Golden framed the day by showing a video of Billy Joel’s performance of the song Miami 2017 at the concert for New York City that took place just weeks after 9/11 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThogWesUQog). The song, which Joel wrote in 1976, is an eerie foreshadowing of events that he, in his own words, “never thought would happen.” Dr. Golden asked our students to contemplate the closing words of the song:   

There are not many who remember 
They say a handful still survive 
To tell the world about 
The way the lights went out 
And keep the memory alive 

These words allude to a generation gap that we felt in our Beit Midrash yesterday. High school students today do not remember the events of 9/11, and some of them were not even born yet. “This means,” Dr. Golden shared, “that we—your teachers, your parents—have the responsibility to make sure you know this story and to find ways to help you make sense of it.”  

We are commanded by the Torah to zachor  (“you shall remember”), both because stories need to be told, and people need to be remembered and because the living—the “next generation”—needs to know where we come from to make meaning of where we are now and to clarify our vision of where we are going. In any society, the need and the obligation to remember fall largely on “the older generation”—it is they who are the transmitters of stories and values.  

At the same time, there is a paradox built into the notion of zachor that Director of Teaching and Learning Jacob Pinnolis alluded to when he shared his personal experience of 9/11 in one of the break-out sessions after the ceremony. Mr. Pinnolis told a story about his daughter (Gann ’12), who was 7 years old on 9/11. Remarkably, on the day of 9/11 itself, she asked him whether it would become like the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av (the saddest day on the Jewish calendar), a day of tragedy that would be remembered and commemorated by future generations.  

Mr. Pinnolis paused and looked out at our students who filled the Bernice Krupp Black Box Theater. “That was not really a question for me,” he told them. “It was a question for you. How an event is remembered is not up to the generation that experienced it; it is in the hands of the generations to come.”  

It is our responsibility as parents, teachers, Jews, Americans to tell our stories to our children and to give them the tools—intellectual, moral, spiritual—to understand them. At the same time, how these stories will be remembered is not in our hands. It is in the hands of our children, our Gann Academy students, who will shape the future of the Jewish community, American society, and our world.   

Thirteen years later, when the children born in 2001 (some of whom lost parents), will become B’nei and B’not Mitzvah, this humbling and inspiring paradox of memory feels particularly poignant.  

Shabbat Shalom,  

Rabbi Marc Baker 

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