January 21, 2019

Personal grief, national grief and how we remember

It’s that time of year again, when I feel less like a citizen of Los Angeles and more like the New Yorker I was before my Western migration seven years ago. A look at the calendar, a clear blue sky, a helicopter circling overhead all cause an idiopathic pang that transports me back to a Tuesday in New York City, in September 2001.

Even though I was on the Upper West Side, “safe” from the carnage at ground zero, life throughout the city was torn apart, as if we’d fractured the space-time continuum — “Back to the Future”-style — transported into a post-9/11 reality no one could have imagined. I remember watching buildings collapse on live TV while I was on the phone with my mother. I remember the days that followed in Manhattan, how garbage pickup and transportation took a noticeable hit, and how we cried more, made more eye contact and were more neighborly — all as the faces of the “lost” smiled out at us from posters on buildings and lampposts.

In the years since the twin towers were felled by planes (and another two planes crashed, one into a field in Pennsylvania and the other into the Pentagon), I have created my own ritual of remembrance. I wake up early every Sept. 11. I listen as the names are recited on CNN. I read reflections from friends and family members who still post about the day, five, 10, now 14 years afterward. I repost my own story for anyone who still hasn’t heard it or who wants to again. If I have new reflections — like I did the year I lost my mother — I write them down and share them on social media.

But since I’ve lived in L.A., I’ve also felt a growing distance. There is now an expanse of time, as well as a massive physical space, between the incident and my here and now. In Los Angeles, I’m far from the geography that is the most affected by memory. And I know that distance from a loss can cause detachment.

When we grieve a loss that’s close to us, we are part of a small circle of bereavement. Within the circle, life is interrupted, irrevocably altered; outside, the world continues to turn, seemingly un-, or  minimally, affected. At those people, we want to shout, “What is wrong with you? Don’t you understand that everything’s different now?” But we don’t, because we know that though emotionally true, acting out isn’t socially helpful: Railing against personal tragedy helps nothing. As we learn to absorb the grief, to dull its most dangerously sharp edges and begin to coexist with it, we find ways to remember that seem more constructive than painful. But it’s still personal. And it’s still with us, even as we return to what seems — to others — like normal.

There are certainly smaller circles of mourners for whom national grief is also personal. But the vast majority of us are — though concentric to the loss — more remote from the epicenter. Our sadness is more general; our depression feels more external, happening to us instead of emerging from within us. Quickly, we harness that feeling in the service of creating communal memory; being more removed from the loss enables us to be functional and pragmatic. And once we’ve attended a memorial event, erected a museum or instituted an annual day of remembrance, we go back to our lives.

Unless we’re talking about the Holocaust. As Jewish children, we are exposed to the images, facts, figures and stories from a young age. As a community, we invoke the vigilance of memory, shout that we should “never forget,” and that if we assimilate, we’re “finishing what Hitler started.” Even if our immediate family members aren’t technically Holocaust survivors, and even while 70 years have passed, the Holocaust still feels omnipresent and personal. And we’re told over and over again to resist the complacency of our comfortable American lives, reminded to believe that “it can happen here.”

Recently, when Natalie Portman said she believes American Jews put too much educational emphasis on the Holocaust, headlines trumpeted this as a betrayal. But what her remarks really indicate is that, to her, the Holocaust is not important only as a memory, but also as a cause to action, an impetus to speak up for all of the oppressed. “We need it to serve as something that makes us empathetic to people rather than paranoid,” Portman said in a number of the many articles reporting her comments. She wasn’t saying, “Don’t study the Holocaust,” or “The Holocaust is just like any other instance of genocide, ethnic cleansing or persecution.” She was calling for us to import the lessons of the Holocaust, to take stands on other terrifying world events that are still happening, where we maybe still can make a difference.

With the 15th anniversary of 9/11 now a year away, I find myself asking questions about time, grief and memory. Personal grief, at least in Jewish life, has a defined halachic duration, although the emotional impact is far more longitudinal. When it comes to the Holocaust, we’ve been charged to “never forget.” But how long are we supposed to dwell in a national tragic memory like 9/11, which involves Jews, but isn’t about Jewish persecution?

Like Portman, I, too, wish to qualify that I’m not drawing an equal sign between two tragedies — the Holocaust and 9/11 are both immense, but very different events in scope, origin and duration. But I do want to suggest that we examine the way we remember the Holocaust while considering how we choose to remember things, especially if we weren’t there ourselves.

Can we look to our tradition, our liturgy or our history to find precedents of how to remember? Do we bentsch gomel, thanking God for the distance between us and the tragedy? Is there a special El Male Rachamim prayer for the souls of those who died? Do we create memorials and art installations and official days of remembrance with ceremonies? Do we light yahrzeit candles, say Kaddish and seek out stories so that those personal memories become a shared responsibility? Is it important for Jews specifically to connect to the trauma of 9/11, to use it as another catalyst to pursue global justice, or separate from it and move on with our lives — and if we do, do “the terrorists win”?

Because 9/11 is not Jewishly specific, some might resist the application of Holocaust-associated mourning rituals to this remembrance. Or people might feel that 9/11 happened to America, and it’s up to America to create the spaces for memorializing it. Or maybe, because 14 years is not 70-plus years, it’s still “too soon” for us — as people who were or weren’t there 14 years ago — to determine how we will remember 9/11. I imagine that back in the late 1950s, the educators of the world were still determining the best way to teach and remember World War II, and that their contemporary equivalents are engaged in a similar process regarding 9/11.

As a writer, I’m thinking about grief and memory. As, until recently, a longtime Jewish nonprofit professional, I heard and read vows of “never again” on a regular basis: On Holocaust Remembrance days and at Iran rallies, in fundraising letters and op-ed columns and High Holy Days sermons. As someone who was in New York City on 9/11 and remembers how close it was to Rosh Hashanah that year, I hear the names of the murdered people as shofar blasts piercing the long moment of silence. As someone who lost her mother back in 2011, I think more than many about how to remember in a way that’s constructive and doesn’t rip out your heart.

And as someone who thinks and overthinks things, I wonder how tragedies belonging mostly to the collective become personal; how a historic event can become a cause for action; and how stories, memory and media shape the way we share it all.


Esther D. Kustanowitz, a contributing writer to the Jewish Journal, is a writer, editor and consultant with nearly two decades of experience as a Jewish nonprofit professional. She is currently the editorial director of GrokNation.com.