JERUSALEM, ISRAEL — I am spending this year studying in Israel, and so I heard about the attacks late in the afternoon, Israel time. My uncle Shabtai, who lives on a kibbutz north of Jerusalem, called me around five o’clock. I closed my Gemara and went outside. I wasn’t concentrating much on the book anyway, as there were some pretty strange rumors flying around school.
“Daniel, did you hear?”
“Yeah, I heard about something in America. Planes crashing?”
I heard the sounds of the television in the background. “Yes,” he said. “I watch CNN now. It is terrible, Daniel, a balagan b’America.” A mess in America.
Another guy came outside, standing beside me on the sidewalk. He answered his cell phone. My uncle described what he was watching on TV, Israel’s CNN now blaring over the phone. I looked at the boy next me on the phone. He stared, bending over, eyebrows rising, and mouth open. I felt myself doing the same as Shabtai continued talking, verification of the rumors I had heard for the past hour. They were true.
“What? Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes. It is here,” Shabtai said. “I see on the TV, Daniel. Like a movie.”
“It’s too ridiculous to be a movie,” I said. “Who would believe it?”
Other guys poured out of the building, everyone talking on phones or yelling in groups. I walked over to a large group. My phone rang again. It was my cousin, Sivan. I told her, yes, I had heard, that Shabtai just called me. She told not to worry. Sivan’s English is good, but her accent is pronounced, almost exotic, though it is the same accent I heard from my father all my life. “Can you call to America?” she asked.
“No, I didn’t try.”
“Well don’t. It’s impossible to get through. We will try later.”
Sivan said, “Do not worry.”
“I’m not, but how could this happen? To America? It’s not Israel, Sivan, it’s the United States. The United States of America. It’s like a miracle, but totally wrong.”
“I understand. Now you will know how it feels to be the victim, yes?”
One of the rabbis came out, calling us inside to recite Tehillim, an impromptu, spontaneous prayer for the moment. Later I found out almost all the schools did the same. No one could concentrate on the studies afterwards, and dinner was a blur. No one even complained about the food – a miracle in and of itself.
I had planned to meet a friend and go out for dinner that night, but I stayed put in school, in Neve Yaackov, the neighborhood where my yeshiva is located. Neve Yaackov is supposed to be the secure part of Jerusalem, a haven from the dangers of going into town and a relatively safe place to live.
My friend was furious with me. “What,” he said, “does an attack in America have anything to do with us going out now, here in Israel?” I told him he was an idiot and that I was going nowhere. Of course it would have something to do with Israel, directly or not.
That night, around eleven o’clock, after speaking with other friends in other schools around Jerusalem, after trying to call to America again and again, I was in my room when I heard gunshots outside. There is an Arab village on the hill over Neve Yaackov, a village within pistol range that was supposed to have been evacuated long ago. Hearing gunshots, everyone in the dormitory ignored any sense of safety or discretion and ran outside. We saw the first of the mishtara speed by, their sirens blaring and lights flashing against the white stone buildings. Even the police in America rarely respond so quickly. Then the vans and army trucks followed down the block. My dormitory is on 9 Rechov Zevin. The bullets hit 20 and 29 Rechov Zevin. The owner of the pizza shop across the street found a bullet embedded in his wall. It looked like a large copper tooth.
Moments later we saw army flares floating over the buildings, lighting up the desert.
“They’re looking for someone.”
“The shooter, maybe, I guess.”
The lights in the Arab village blinked off — Israel’s standard reaction against even a small insurrection.
I called my other cousins, who live down the block. The babysitter answered. She said, the parents were away. She was hiding under the table with the kids. “My mother told me it was the guys from your school. Just the Beis guys making noise,” she said.
“No, it wasn’t. Sorry.”
“I didn’t think so.”
As I stood outside, watching the flares traveling down the hill that is Neve Yaackov, Sivan called me again. “You won’t believe what just happened,” I said. She sucked in breath as I described what I was watching.
“Go inside,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, not moving.
Sivan talked about watching the towers collapse on TV. There was nothing new that she told me.
For days after the attacks, whenever I met new people — total strangers, Israelis, Palestinians — they spoke to me softly, comforting me, as if the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been my home and the people trapped inside my immediate family. On Friday, I bought a copy of Time; Newsweek had sold out hours earlier. As I rode the bus that day through town, I listened to President Bush’s statements. I was glad to hear English on Israeli radio, especially under the circumstances.