Why I Was Oblivious on September 11th

For my generation, September 11th is our JFK assassination. Sometime, someone will ask, “Where were you when you heard the Twin Towers came down?”

My answer never fails to fascinate, because it’s so convoluted. Technically, I heard the rumor in school. But it wasn’t verified by a reliable authoritative source until I got home at 5:30pm that night.

Yep, you heard that right.

Here’s what happened.

It was 9 in the morning and we had just finished davening. We were finding our places in our Chumash when the principal walked in. With some solemnity – but not that much – she said there had been a crash in Manhattan (a helicopter into the Empire State Building?) and we were all going to say a kapittal Tehillim for the injured.

This was only a month after some kid flew his plane into a building in Florida, apparently because he was on Accutane, so I didn’t think much of it.

Class proceeded as usual.

Between classes, however, rumors started accumulating. The secretaries were not at the office window because they were glued to an ancient radio in the office – presumably something kept in the back of the filing cabinet for emergencies. They were somber, but not officially supposed to talk. Still, if you were friendly with them (I was not) you heard some rumors.

And the rumors were weird.

We said another perek of Tehillim before the next class, and together at lunchtime. It was never completely clear what we were saying Tehillim for, though. The crash was obviously bigger than initially described, and someone said Hatzolah was on the scene so we were saying Tehillim for them, although it was unclear why they would need it, or maybe it was all the Jews who worked downtown who might be in the Empire State Building (or the Twin Towers. It might actually be the Twin Towers. Or both. Or something.)

The most prolific information came from the students with illicit cell phones, or who called their parents on the payphone at lunch or during gym class. The Twin Towers had been hit by a plane, the White House had been hit by a plane, the Empire State Building had been hit (by a plane not a helicopter) – it was utterly ludicrous, so of course I didn’t believe it. “And Manhattan Island is sinking,” I joked. We played machanayim in gym and then went back to the classroom for Global History, where we learned about the French Revolution.

I walked home after school and burst through the door with my usual, “Hi Ma! What’s for supper?!”

“Lasagna is in the oven,” my mother said, looking at me strangely. “How was school?”

“Boring. When will it be ready?”

“Did you hear what happened today?”

“Oh I heard a lot of things, most of it crazy.”

And that was when I found out that, actually, three jets had been flown into three American landmarks, and another had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, there were an estimated 10,000 dead, and it was thought to be terrorism.

Most people think this is completely nuts. My friends who were in school in the Midwest were sent home early. It was a day to huddle with your family in front of the TV wondering if the world was going to end. And we, across the bridge in Brooklyn, were learning Navi as usual? Nobody from the school had made an official announcement? How is that not crazy?

To be fair, I understand my principal’s thought process completely. If the world was going to end, where was a better place to be: at home watching TV or getting in some last zechusim learning Torah?

And if you were going to be learning Torah, why be distracted by distressing rumors of current events? We would learn much better without this information. Besides, everything was unconfirmed and speculative. We were better off shielded from such things.

And honestly, I kind of agree. Although it would have been nice to get a proper, official, news update at some point, so we weren’t actually the last people in the entire world to find out what happened.

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Why I Was Oblivious on September 11th

3 thoughts on “Why I Was Oblivious on September 11th

  1. Esther Bernstein says:

    It sounds like you were in high school. I was in eighth grade. We didn’t even get to the saying tehillim part – teachers were forbidden to tell us anything. All we knew was “snow in september” as we looked out the window. That snow turned out to be bits of smoldering paper making its way from the burning buildings into Brooklyn. An afternoon secular studies teacher who hadn’t yet heard the injunction against all information said something to her class, so around lunchtime we started thinking something weird was happening. I remember coming home at 4:30 and finding my mother glued to the radio, where she stayed for the rest of the night. All I knew was that my cousins were walking across the bridge to get home and there was no cell service so my aunt was going crazy from worry. I can understand the school’s desire to keep children from being terrified. But what that did to me, knowing that all day had been normal for me while the world crashed down around our ears, while we gossiped and speculated about what had happened with mild interest as in any other news story – it made it hard to me to assimilate the tragedy into my own reality. My friend who’d been sick that day and felt the boom of the crash, knew what was happening all day – it was much more real to her, in a less gossipy and more healthy way.

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  2. > It was never completely clear what we were saying Tehillim for, though.

    This is fascinating. How is this supposed to work? Does it not matter if the person saying tehillim knows what it’s for? Does saying tehillim generate zechusim, which Hashem will then apply to the nearest, largest Bad Thing? Is it enough if the person telling you to say tehillim knows what it’s for, and that will direct its effects where they need to go? Is tehillim the go-to response to bad things, and the principal didn’t think through the metaphysics?

    > Most people think this is completely nuts. … we, across the bridge in Brooklyn

    The wind that day was blowing towards Brooklyn. Dust and debris from the towers were literally in the air around you.

    Your description of your principal’s motivations is the attitude of the RW of the frum world towards current events/history in general.

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  3. NoName says:

    Wow. I live on the west coast and knew before school started. We still had school but left very early (but after everything had happened on the east coast) because they were worried about safety. The planes were all headed to the west coast. Plus us older kids were distracted so no learning was getting done anyways. We had family there. We had friends there. Some had fathers who worked in the Towers.
    But I remember telling the super charedi teachers what had happened. They didn’t even have a radio on that morning. To find out the world was changing forever from a 12 year old. I felt important being the news reporter but looking back, the teachers must have thought I was crazy.

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