Sunday, February 02, 2003

Where Were You When...

“Brian, get up here quickly,” our neighbor Marc called from the top of the stairs. “Amir’s watching TV and he’s very upset.”

“Why?” I called across the courtyard. It was the end of Shabbat and Jody, Aviv and I were coming back from the park. It had been an unusually warm February day, the kind that restores your faith in the compassion of the seasons.

“Didn’t you hear?” Marc said. “The space shuttle’s disintegrated.”

No way. Couldn’t be. Not again.

I raced up the stairs to see the image of a sky as perfect as the one we were experiencing in Jerusalem, marred only by the faint white streaks that hinted at disaster. This was the image that would be played over and over on CNN, BBC, Sky News and others all night as the experts tried to figure out what happened.

Amir sat transfixed in front of the television, watching that image, listening to the repeated profiles of Ilan Ramon. His face was composed, with just a hint of ashen heart.

Was it only two weeks ago that the first blue and white astronaut blasted off and, as I wrote in "The Final Frontier," in the process boosted all of Israel's hopes for a brighter tomorrow? What kind of horrible metaphor does its crashing down to earth symbolize then?

I should have known something was wrong the minute Marc called from our shared second floor entryway. The last time that happened was 9/11. I had been on a business trip in France. I called home from my cellphone just to check in and got Marc instead of Jody.

“What are you doing in our house?” I asked him.

“Didn’t you hear?” he replied. “The Twin Towers. They’re gone. We watched them go down just now.”

And then the rest of the story unfolded.

It was a “Where Were You When…” moment. As in "where were you when you heard..."

Thankfully, there have been only a few of these awful moments in our lives. Kennedy in ‘63 was what most people of my generation refer to us the penultimate experience of group bonding through bad news.

In Israel, we have our own unique moments.

Where were you on Yom Kippur 1973 when you noticed something was out of the ordinary?

Where were you when the first scuds fell during the Gulf War?

Where were you when you heard that Yitzhak Rabin was murdered?

In the face of disaster, the power of “Where Were You When…” is an integral part of the grieving process. Once you’ve digested the news, sharing with others your personal relationship to the gory details is like sitting together in a virtual communal shiva .

9/11, though it took place in the U.S., affected Israelis as much as it did Americans. I slept through it.

I had been up most of the night before preparing our CEO and other senior VPs for presentations they had to make the following morning at our company’s annual User Forum. After the presentations, I headed back to my hotel room to catch a quick nap before the evening’s activities.

When I woke, I turned on the TV. I saw smoke coming out of the World Trade Center, but the news was all in French, which I don’t speak. My hotel, a budget two-star, didn’t have any English-language satellite channels. I recognized certain expressions, in particular “un catastrophe,” but it wasn’t fully registering. I took a shower, got dressed and walked back to the conference hall. That’s when I called home and learned the full impact of what had happened.

The conference hall was deserted. The hundreds of delegates had all gone back to their individual hotel rooms. I tried to log on the Internet from one of the now-abandoned demo stations. But I had missed the communal bonding, the shared moment of understanding. I felt lost. Away from my family. Away from my colleagues. Alone in what seemed to be a monstrously changed world.

I imagine many observant Jews in North America had a similar feeling with the disintegration of the Columbia yesterday: it was Shabbat when it happened. For us in Israel, there were only two hours until the end of Shabbat, but in New York and Toronto and Los Angeles, the day still had many hours to play out. News travels fast, of course, and even those who don’t turn on their radios or televisions on the Sabbath undoubtedly heard what was going on.

When a terrorist blew himself up at the Park Hotel on Pesach of last year, killing 29, our family, thankfully, did not hear the news until after the holiday ended the next day at sundown. The bonding still came, even if delayed by 24 hours.

Last night’s disaster has hit all of Israel hard. Ilan Ramon was a symbol, but also a man with a wife, four young children and a history. His family survived the Holocaust and he took a small Torah scroll smuggled out of Bergen-Belsen, a microfiche copy of the Bible, a kiddush cup and a two-week supply of kosher food with him into space.

As I tucked Amir into bed, I asked him “Do you think you should say a special Shema tonight?”

“Why?” he replied. “They’re already dead.” I was initially shocked by such bluntness, but from his point of view, it was a purely logical statement: he was recalling the great Rabbis of the Mishna who recited the Shema at the very moments of their deaths, not afterward.

“I don’t know,” I fumbled. “I heard an interview with Ilan Ramon the other day. He said that when the shuttle passed over Israel and he saw Jerusalem from space, he said the Shema.”

Amir immediately put his hand over his eyes and said the words.

I am sure that many children of many different faiths said a special prayer last night. And I am equally sure that, years from now, those children may well discover that this was their shared experience. A “Where Were You When …” moment of the young and still innocent, who I pray will continue to hold fast to the hope that someday they, too, will be able to soar into space despite it all, to behold the beauty of the land beneath them, and to say their personal Shema.

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