I wrote this piece a week after 9/11. Hard to believe that we are approaching the tenth anniversary. But it has, indeed, been a decade -- My daughter, born in January of 2001, is now a fifth grader. The day still haunts me, this city, and beyond. My heart is with all the families who are headed to memorials this week.
Even in Tragedy, A Little Humor
By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner
On the Thursday after the attacks, I went to serve as a volunteer chaplain at the Armory on Lexington Avenue, where the city had set up a center for families of the missing. Walking up the steps to the entrance, I couldn’t help but remember the last time that I was there. It was at a contemporary art show packed with sculptures made with sardine cans and inflatable cows, all being hawked by stylish gallery people from places like Helsinki or Zurich. Now the massive hall was occupied by folding table after folding table of police officers, assisting families as they completed a seven-page form and stapled on dental records.
Like the other clergy who were volunteering to staff the site, I felt overcome by the anguish I found there. I had sat with families in grief and loss when I worked in a Philadelphia Hospital as a chaplain, but the scene in the Armory was a thousand times more desperate. In the hospital we always had a body, sometimes a vital sign, doctors to explain the situation, information; here I spoke with family after family only to say, “We don’t know yet. You are doing everything you can. My heart is with you.” Some family members approached me to ask: “What happens if they don’t find any bodies?” Coming up with an answer felt unbearably grim.
After a few hours spent absorbing the tremendous tension and sorrow in the main hall, some of the chaplains were called downstairs to the basement, where the police were setting up more tables. Now would come the most difficult of tasks – bringing families in to see the list of confirmed dead. On a long wooden bench along the wall sat priests, ministers, and an Imam. I squeezed in next to a Catholic priest and a young Episcopalian minister with a “Hello, my name is Christopher” name tag, feeling like we had just been drafted for a dreadful and hopeless task. Then the Red Cross Spiritual Care Coordinator spoke. “OK, guys, listen up!” She was an amazingly energetic minister from California who conveyed a mix of pep and compassion: “I’m gonna make this brief because we don’t have much time before those families come in here and I’m assuming you all know what to do. I’ve seen this before. This is like what I saw in Oklahoma City—we need to be there and show God’s love—but I want to remind you that this is not a time to proselytize. This is ecumenical. No praying in the name of Jesus. Just be a spiritual presence. Show God’s love for them. Do what you do best. Remember, no praying in the name of Jesus!”
I raised my hand and she nodded at me. “Yes, Rabbi, what is it?”
“Is it all right if I pray in the name of Jesus?”
The laughter from the other clergy filled the room. This was the only joke I cracked the entire week, which, you might imagine, is an all-time low for a rabbi.
It is hard to relate anything other than grief in connection with this tragedy, but there were some precious moments when something else—some recognition of the shared sense of absurdity that this chaos has wrought—broke through.
On Wednesday morning, the day before my experience at the Armory, I was among a group of rabbis who were down at the Chelsea Piers, which had been set up hastily as a triage area, but ended up serving as a spot for families to fill out the missing persons report. This was not my first visit to the Piers, either; I had once enjoyed the driving range with some old college friends on a summer night, smacking golf balls into a large net over the Hudson. Now I was organizing a clergy table with the help of a Catholic priest from 135th Street, Episcopalian ministers from the seminary two blocks away, a Buddhist teacher from the Upper West Side, and an Ethical Culture minister from Riverdale. We prayed silently with one another as we began our work.
Mainly, we escorted the families as they filed through to the tables to fill out the reports. We offered them water, directed them to the bathroom, and tried our best to speak with them in a calm, understanding way. Some of the ministers and priests were taking families over to get food that had been set out along one wall. One of the rabbis, David Sable, realized there was nothing kosher. He made a tactical decision to call Mendy’s Deli, home of classic pickles, pastrami, corned beef and tongue that some people insist is New York’s best. Soon after, a donated platter of cold cut sandwiches arrived, and much potato salad.
A few hours later, I was with a Jewish family as they looked for an uncle in a tireless search. After they filled out their forms, I told them that we had some kosher food, and asked if they wanted anything. They looked exhausted, and I guessed that they had not eaten since the attack. “No, thank you, we’re alright,” they responded. I pushed. “Do you like Mendy’s?” I asked. On hearing this, they brightened just a bit, and answered in that quintessentially Jewish way which answers a question with a question: “Mendy’s?” We laughed.
I’ve never seen such comfort from a corned beef sandwich.
Such life-affirming moments could not come close to consoling the thousands of families in enormous grief. But as all the solemn declarations about tragedy are being made, it should be remembered that even in tragedy, New Yorkers did not lose their sense of humor.
In fact, New Yorkers retained their character. This city, which can harden even the most laid back soul, has always thrived on unexpected kindness, the quick joke from a stranger, and a shared sense that there is astounding beauty in a world that trucks along just a notch above chaos. So while the attacks have changed the lives of thousands, the subway map, and the skyline, I am proud to report that they haven’t drained the sweetness from the Big Apple.