Celebrating a Birthday in the Shadow of 9/11

I was busy blowing up balloons, hanging streamers and assembling goody bags when I heard about the September 11 attacks.

September 11, 2001 was my son Eitan’s fifth birthday. Just a few weeks earlier, I had returned to my home in Israel from a year-long sabbatical in Connecticut, and, with the house full of unpacked boxes, I had decided that I would pull together a celebration for him anyway. I had invited three of my close friends – all American immigrants to Ra’anana and their children, had hurriedly set up some climbing toys and put out arts and crafts materials. It was supposed to be a relaxed afternoon for moms and kids, with some low-key activities and then a cake and candles. Little did I know that this party was going to be one that I would never forget.

The phone rang. It was my mother-in-law calling from the car on her way to my house, asking if I’d heard about some kind of attack in the U.S. I switched on CNN and then froze in disbelief. I had no breath available for the balloons.

I was still glued to the television when the guests began arriving. I had to greet the arriving children with a carefree smile, sent them to romp on the jungle gym, and then gravely inform their mothers as to what was happening in lower Manhattan, and help them cope with the shock and concern about our friends and family in the U.S.

We didn’t want to disturb the children with the pictures of the towers, so I turned on the television upstairs and we took turns finding out what was happening. Knowing that my brother in Boston flew frequently for business and that one of the planes came from Boston, I desperately tried to reach him by telephone, but to no avail. Later I found out that he had been about to board an American Airlines flight to San Francisco that left from the gate next to the doomed American Airlines Flight 11 that crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Colleagues in the business class club he had just greeted he would never see again.

One might think that the events of September 11 wouldn’t hit Israelis hard – after all, we were no strangers to awful acts of terrorism. But Israel was devastated. Everyone was riveted to the coverage of the aftermath of the attacks and we could speak of little else for weeks. Those of us who had been raised in the U.S. felt particularly unnerved. America was our safe place, a place of innocence, far from the cruel realities of the Middle East.

Since that day, I’ve felt as if Americans understand Israelis far better than they did 9/11. Until that point, Americans had no idea of what it is like to be hated and attacked, not necessarily for what they do, but merely for who they are.

Today my little boy of five is a rambunctious teenager of 15, and jokes that he has more of a right to resent al-Qaeda than others because of what they did to his birthday. So this year, like every year, we mark the day of his birth under the shadow of remembrance and mourning.

Instead of letting the date bring me down, I prefer to celebrate and be happy. For our family, my son’s birthday has become yet another lesson in affirming life and experiencing joy in the face of unrelenting hatred – an area in which Israelis have accumulated, sadly, a great deal of experience.

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Celebrating a Birthday in the Shadow of 9/11

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