Surveillance: Watching the Dead of 9/11
To even consider writing a retrospective about a year of my life that ended so recently seemed ridiculous. It occurred to me that I had no realistic grasp of the sequence of events that pulled me into Shmira and kept me going for so many months. Shmira is the act of watching over a dead body between its death and burial. A Jewish body—any body really—is sacred, and it contains a soul that isn’t released from this earth until the body is six feet under. Truth be told…I’d never heard of this act until after September 11th.
The numbers are final now. Almost 3000 bodies are identified as victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan. Many were Jews. Immediately after the attacks, signs were posted all over the walls of Stern College; pray for so-and-so, who is still missing. We prayed for the souls and we prayed for the families. But everyone knew that “missing” meant dead.
I went home for the holidays and couldn’t stop thinking about the thousands of bodies torn apart and buried under rubble, mixed in with the bodies of their murderers. The whole world suddenly realized the horror of suicide bombers and Arab extremist terrorists. The West Wing aired an episode where they pointed out that living in a country where you could be bombed at any time would be like living in Israel. Rudy Giuliani nearly broke down in tears many times, and George W waved his fists in the air and declared to lasso in those terrorists, dead or alive. Every day the papers printed some new truth behind the attacks, and I read every article. But there were no pictures or videotape allowed of Ground Zero, and I was 3000 miles away in Seattle. All I had were my memories of a plane hitting a building and a smoky collapse. There was nothing I could do to help.
When I returned to New York, the streets still seemed empty and I still felt useless. My friend Adam Plotch instant messaged me. “Wanna do me a favor?” he asked me. I said no, because I always said no to Adam’s favors. “This one’s a mitzvah,” he said, and explained about Shmira. I told him to call Stern College and ask a dean to enlist a student leader. I told him I’d be of no use to him. See, Adam needed someone to recruit girls every weekend to sit Shmira at the New York University morgue on 30th and 1st, close to the Stern dorms. All the bodies—or rather, body parts—were being kept there, outdoors, in large trucks. I didn’t know that many people, even in my fourth year, and suggested Adam find someone who did.
So Adam called Stern, and they turned him down. He instant messaged me again with the same words, and this time I said yes. It frustrated me that Stern wasn’t willing to become involved in this mitzvah. When I went to the assistant dean of student services, Zelda Braun, she told me she’d heard about the situation, and that there were no student leaders willing to take on the job. But Braun understood that I had already enlisted ten girls to sit at the NYU morgue, and I needed the help of the Stern security guards to walk us back and forth in the middle of the night. For the sake of the girls’ safety, she said yes.
It still frustrates me that Yeshiva University took much of the credit for Shmira, and that Rabbi Lamm was quoted as saying that he gave us his approval. We never asked for it. We already had it. But anyway, all the girls were Stern students, and the newspaper press was good for the Jews and for YU.
I got ribbed for wearing pants in the New York Times. Apparently I was supposed to be representing YU, a fact of which I was never informed. And apparently I was misrepresenting YU by wearing pants. When I woke up that morning I didn’t stop to think, Hmmm…maybe I should lie to the world and wear pants, even though it’s not part of my belief system, it has nothing to do with Shmira, and it has nothing to do with where I go to school. I got phone calls from student representatives of YU, lecturing me on my decision. But not a single member of the administration cared. This role reversal was very amusing at the time.
I met people who wanted to hear if I was growing spiritually, emotionally and religiously. I told them all the same thing. Spiritually, I felt an actual connection with the souls of the victims. It was as if I would walk into that tent or trailer at the morgue with my feet on the ground, soar up into the sky a couple of miles for a few hours, and when I walked out, the real world was always a shock. Every single time. And I could feel their presence. They were there, thanking me. Emotionally, I understood that my emotions were part of my responsibility. I had to stay focused to get the job done, but still allow myself to cry for the dead. Every time I walked in it was like they had just been murdered that day. And religiously, I learned that there are more mitzvahs out there than I was aware of. Sometimes, like this time, they’ll find me. But most of the time, I have to find them.
I remember when Judith Kaplan—my best friend, who’s always wanted to be part of a Chevra Kadisha and was with me right from the beginning—was filmed for a documentary about September 11th. The director wanted her to wear all black and look out a window into the night sky. They wanted her to look spiritual. I was the grounded one, they said, and she was the spiritual. She and I still laugh at that because we’ve always come off that way to people, even though we react exactly alike.
I’m still hearing things about it from people. About how they saw me in a newspaper or read a story in Chicken Soup for the Soul. Recently someone told my grandfather how when she first saw my name in the paper, she wasn’t surprised. She said she knew my great-grandmother, who ran her Chevra Kadisha, and knew it was in my blood. I think that’s the best thing I’ve heard since it all began. I found out that my Hebrew birthday is associated with Chevra Kadisha. 7th of Adar. All these things I figured out after it all ended.
The main thing I figured out when it all ended is that I never got to mourn. After our last Shabbos sitting Shmira, Judith and I looked at each other in shock. We didn’t know what to feel. It was as though September 11th had lasted for months. I don’t know if I’m done mourning. It will take a long time. That day will last forever.
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