The 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks is this Sunday. Although Jews don’t usually acknowledge tenth anniversaries any differently from others, this one will be different, if for no other reason than the media is giving it a lot of press. Needless to say, it’s on my mind.
If I didn’t have children, I would probably spend some time this year remembering the attacks, mourning the many, many losses our country sustained on that terrible day, and feeling angry—mostly at those who would perpetrate such terror, but also at those who use this tragedy as an excuse for further acts of hatred and discrimination.
But I do have kids now, so my focus has shifted away from my own reactions. The girls are still young, so I’m not yet worried about how I will talk to them about what happened that day, and how our country has changed since then. But this anniversary has made me think about how terrorism (both the events of 9/11 and the resulting war on terror) has impacted me, both as a person and as a parent. It’s difficult to put words to it, though. In fact, it’s hard for me to remember the tone of our national discourse before the fall of 2001. I was living in Albuquerque, starting my graduate degree in social work. I had just begun dating the man who is now my husband. I was just figuring out who I was, and who I would become, and the aftermath of 9/11 is so deeply intertwined with my growth in adulthood that I can’t disentangle the two.
As I remember September 11, the first thing that comes to mind, of course, is the fear—the fear that flooded our country that day and the days that followed, the fear for our physical safety, for the future of our country, and for the Jewish people. Of course, we Jews are no strangers to fear, even from an early age. I remember a childhood conversation with my grandmother (who lived through World War II in Italy) about our Jewish heritage, and her response was a worried plea to “Never tell anyone.” Perhaps the most notable part of the conversation was that her words didn’t surprise me, and I didn’t wonder why she felt that way.
I don’t want to pass that fear to my daughters, although I suspect it will happen anyway. How can I possibly talk to them about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, much less 9/11, without there being some element of fear? No, the fear will be there, and my job as a parent is to let it be ok for them to be scared, but to also let them know that we will keep them as safe as possible. And, of course, we can do our best to educate them through, and against, the fear.
Which brings me back to the lessons of 9/11 that I hope to impart to my children. To be honest, I haven’t figured it out yet. I have some general ideas about the importance of pluralism and equality, but every time I try to distill those thoughts into something concrete and kid-relevant, I get all confused and start wishing I was as eloquent as the folks who wrote the 9/11 episode of The West Wing. And then there is the stubborn side of me that doesn’t want my child-raising to be impacted by terrorism at all, because then don’t the terrorists win?
But the reality is that it doesn’t have to be that complicated, and I’m grateful to have my daughters to remind me of that. The truth is simple, but in the aftermath of 9/11, not always easy to remember. Most people are good and decent. There are also bad people in the world who do bad things, and sometimes good people do bad things. Bad things happen to everyone, and sometimes we can make sense of them, and other times we can’t. Perhaps the best we can do, perhaps the best we can teach our children, can be found in the words of Hillel, in the idea of Torah on one foot: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others.”
So, on this anniversary, perhaps you will light a yarhzeit candle, attend a memorial service, or say an extra prayer for the victims and their families. And maybe I’ll play a new game with my girls—maybe we’ll practice standing on one foot. It’s not much, but it’s a place to start.