An excerpt from This Jewish Life by Debra Darvick
The story of Judith Kaplan
Looking out my roommate’s window, I could see the black smoke as the twin towers of the World Trade Center burned and then collapsed 60 blocks away. I’ve lived in New York all my life, and it took only a second or two to realize that people I knew who worked in the towers might already have died. This is my city. That was my skyline, my buildings. The lobby of our apartment house was complete pandemonium. Some of our building’s residents had run the three miles north, covered in ash, crying hysterically. We live quite close to the Empire State Building and we were terrified it would be next. Out on the street all we could do was watch. Can you imagine military vehicles lumbering down Lexington Avenue? It became so difficult to breathe that we had to cover our faces when we walked outside. A distinct smell permeated the air. It was completely different from the burning odor we’re all familiar with and lasted for months after the attacks.
My roommate and I were desperate to help in some way. We gathered food and socks and towels for the Red Cross, but it seemed like such a small thing. Hundreds had already shown up to give blood, but that wasn’t an option for me.
There was little to do, and it hurt to be unable to aid the city or the hundreds, even thousands of people affected. I didn’t know it at the time, but an opportunity to help was about to present itself.
When a Jew dies, the Chevra Kedisha, the Jewish burial society, washes and dresses the body, and then a person called a shomer (shomeret in the feminine) begins what is called shmira—watching over the body until it is buried. During this time of guarding the body, the shomer also recites Psalms. Shmira is not only a gesture of protection, it is also one of respect. The human body once held a soul, and you want to treat it with the utmost dignity. Within hours of the attack, Armand Osgood from Congregation Ohab Zedek in Manhattan began organizing scores of volunteers to perform shmira. They began on September 12 with the arrival of the first remains, which, until they could be identified, could not be buried.
We believe that the soul doesn’t leave the physical world until the deceased is buried. Until that time, the soul is in limbo and in pain, no longer animating a human body, but not yet free to return to God. The recitation of Tehillim, or Psalms, not only eases the soul’s pain but helps the deceased return to God.
About a month after the attack, a close friend, Jessica Russack, called and said they were having trouble getting people to do shmira over the Sabbath. Because observant Jews do not travel on the Sabbath and none of those reciting Psalms lived within walking distance of the temporary morgue that had been set up adjacent to the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, no one was reciting Psalms on the holiest day of the week. Within a few hours we got eight girls, classmates of ours from Stern College, the women’s school of Yeshiva University, to commit to this mitzvah. I took the midnight–4 a.m. shift.
The length of Thirtieth Street, from First Avenue down to the FDR Drive, had been converted into the aforementioned temporary morgue. The police and fire departments and the Red Cross were all a part of the rescue and recovery efforts and had stations. The Salvation Army undertook the ongoing responsibility of feeding the volunteers, and the Red Cross also continued to provide chaplains.
I was very nervous the first night. How much would I see? Who would be there with me? Would I burst into tears? I was already so emotionally spent, so nervous and on edge. But when I entered the tent where I would be praying, a sense of duty and spirituality came over me. None of my fears were realized. I opened up my Tehillim, my book of Psalms, and just started to sing. It felt so good. I wasn’t sad and I wasn’t scared. I was surrounded by a feeling of purpose.
I’ve come to be known as “the singing girl.” There are 150 psalms, and I sing each one. Some have their own melodies and sometimes I use the tunes from Lamentations. Melodies come to me from unknown places, too. One evening I realized that I had incorporated the melody to a Rosh HaShanah prayer my grandfather had been teaching my father before September 11. For weeks before the High Holidays I had heard them practicing together.
At first people were skeptical of us. They had grown accustomed to the volunteers from the Upper West Side praying at the morgue site for a month. I am pretty small, and one Shabbat I heard someone say, “What’s this little girl doing here?” Their attitude didn’t bother me. I was there for a purpose; it was me and the prayers and the souls. I just smiled and waved, and as time went on I became a regular on Friday night. Some nights the on-duty police officers talked with me about their experiences at the World Trade Center. Occasionally people would ask for the singing girl so they could thank me. “You don’t know how much this means to know that someone is out here praying,” one said. We don’t just say prayers for the Jewish souls, but for everyone. This calamity transcended all boundaries. A soul is a soul.
After five months of these Friday nights, I needed a “real” Shabbat at home, a full night’s sleep, and time with my family. But I missed praying. I was back the next week, rested and eager to begin again. It’s sad, but it’s what we do. It’s a chesed shel emet, a kindness that cannot be repaid. It’s the biggest help, the biggest mitzvah you can do. It doesn’t ruin Shabbat for me but adds an extra spiritual layer. In a way I leave the world and all my worries behind. Singing Tehillim one after the other is magnetizing. It’s wonderful. I can’t sit by and let pass this opportunity to help. Neither could my sister, who often does shmira during the week. In 20 years, when it’s rebuilt, I can tell my children: “This is what happened and this is what I did. This is what the Jewish people did as a community.”
During those first weeks and months, the air was heavy with souls of the dead. It sounds crazy, but I felt their presence. As I prayed I could feel them getting better. After talking with a policeman, I knew it wasn’t my imagination. He’s been around enough dead bodies to know the feel of a soul nearby. I feel them, too, and as the months have gone on and bodies have been buried, I also feel the air thinning. It feels lighter.
Reciting Tehillim at the morgue each Shabbat has transformed my attitude toward prayer. Tehillim are not unfamiliar to me. I’d been taught long ago to recite Psalms in times of crisis. Before September 11, I prayed, but the words weren’t my words. They stayed on the page. Now I am connecting with the Psalms as never before. I know what it is to pray with my heart, not just my head. I have taken these words that King David wrote 3,000 years ago and made them my own. Each week I see the effect these Psalms have on people. Prayer has power. I’ve seen it. I’ve felt it. It’s real.
By coincidence, the first assignment in our oral interpretation of literature class was to recite a Psalm that held particular meaning for us. The assignment was due September 12. Although I’d recited psalms all my life, I had no idea which one I would pick. On the evening of September 11, my roommate and I were particularly struck by Psalm 27:
The Lord is my light and my help;
whom should I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
whom should I dread?
When evil men assail me
to devour my flesh,
it is they, my foes and my enemies,
who stumble and fall.
Should an army besiege me,
my heart would have no fear;
should war beset me,
still would I be confident.
That first week I was to do shmira, my mom asked me if that was really how I wanted to spend my Shabbat. I told her that it was the most meaningful way I could possibly spend it. Right after the attack, everything seemed incredibly bleak; I tried so hard to focus on the positive. In the subsequent weeks I’ve realized that good has come out of this tragedy. The unity of the people of New York is unbelievable. Their goodness cannot be matched. That goodness is our strength; that is what will beat the terrorists. That goodness teaches us to love and accept everyone regardless of their faith, skin color or nationality. This is the exact opposite of what terrorism is. Psalm 27 closes with these words: “Wait upon the Lord, remain strong. Let your heart give you courage; wait upon the Lord.” September 11 was the most awful day of my life. Doing shmira each Shabbat allows me to remain strong, giving courage to my heart, urging me to wait upon God.
This story is a section from my book, This Jewish Life. The book contains more personal stories like this one. Fifty-four voices enable readers to experience a calendar’s worth of Judaism’s strengths — community, healing, transformation of the human spirit, and the influence of the Divine. This Jewish Life is a year in the life of a contemporary Jew told by a variety of individuals.
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