April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The summer of 2001 had been hot and stifling, but on that early Tuesday morning in September a refreshing breeze cooled the air. It was a picture-perfect day. Overhead a clear sunny sky looked like an endless blue expanse, and I was driving to the mall with a long to-do list in my bag. There were still several errands to do and things to buy in preparation for my son’s bar mitzvah that Shabbat. Calls had to be made to the florist and caterer, as well as arrangements for out-of-town guests.

When I turned on the radio, instead of hearing an uplifting tune to match my good mood, I felt a jolt when an ongoing news brief reported that one airplane and then another had crashed into the Twin Towers. At first, I thought it must be a mistake; this can’t be happening. I continued to listen to the news while sitting in the garage of the mall, never leaving the car. Then, finally, I turned around and headed towards Riverdale where we were living at the time. By the time I got home, the Twin Towers had collapsed and had been reduced to a pile of rubble. Mayor Giuliani was speaking in anguished tones about the enormous loss of life.

After calling people who worked downtown to check if they were okay, I put the crumpled to-do list on the table. Then I sat glued to the television, which revealed the spiral of unbelievable images and horrors of the day not just in New York, but in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. The school sent a message to parents for us to pick up our children earlier, some of the families also had relatives and friends who had worked in the Twin Towers. Dazed parents silently walked their children out of the school. There were no words. How could anyone explain this, it was beyond comprehension. Later that evening, my husband returned from work in Manhattan and said the young man from our shul with whom he rode the train that very morning had never made it out of one the Towers. He had gone back inside to help others get out.

Over the next few days the air felt swollen, filled with seismic shock waves, thus making it hard to breathe. From my window facing the Henry Hudson Parkway, I could see remnants of smoke lingering lifelessly in the air. For sure, the world had gone crazy without rhyme or reason. But, something important hadn’t changed. From my son’s room we continued to hear the words and the sweet melody of Parshat Nitzavim, as he practiced for his big day. For the last year, he’d been practicing the parsha every evening until the whole family knew the beginning p’sukim (sentences). Even if some of the plans wouldn’t work out, our Bar Mitzvah Shabbat was going to happen. Our rabbi counseled us and said, “Shabbat comes at the end of the week no matter what.”

With all this, I was still stuck in a fog. My list continued to sit untouched until Yocheved knocked on the door. She smiled and handed me the first bar mitzvah gift and said, “It’s going to be a wonderful simcha–I can’t wait for Shabbat!” Her words sliced right through my fog. Yes, and there’s so much to do! Grabbing the list, I phoned the florist and the caterer who again promised to get there somehow even though many bridges were closed.

I drove back to the mall to pick up the bar mitzvah suit and tie. The rest of the week was a flurry of activity; the outstanding items on that to-do list were quickly getting crossed off. After all the practice and hard work, it was about time to step up to the Torah.

Then later on Friday afternoon, my bar mitzvah young man stood before us transformed in his new dark suit, kippah clipped in the center of his freshly combed hair, and shirt tails tucked in neatly (a miracle!). He wore a big smile, and my heart melted with sparks of joy. We were finally ready to walk towards The Riverdale Jewish Center to light candles, say Kabbalat Shabbat, and have dinner. When the chazzan started singing Lecha Dodi–the healing balm of Shabbat oozed through my pores. That Friday evening, the RJC was packed with men and women and not just for our bar mitzvah. So many people seemed to need support and to hold onto the open arms of Shabbat that week.

The next morning, my son read Parshat Nitzavim and made us proud. We had Kiddush and a luncheon, and the caterer was true to his word despite the challenges of the week. Then we danced, held him high up on a chair, and sang zemirot (songs). When friends and relatives left, they thanked us for giving them a reprieve, for helping to lift their spirits.

Reflecting back to that week when our world changed and our collective sense of security crumbled, there was a bright light at the end of the week. The illumination of Shabbat has continued to show us the way in the light and in the shadows.

Esther Kook is a Teaneck resident. She’s a reading teacher, tutor, and freelance writer.

By Esther Kook

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