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Last summer, while I was in New York researching and studying Yiddish, I decided to check out the cultural offerings of Hasidic Williamsburg. The highlight of this jaunt into the living world of Yiddish was a trip to a bookstore on Lee Street, the neighborhood’s main artery.
Not surprisingly, there was an impressive, if daunting, array of leather-bound holy books lining the walls of this crowded little store. But the store also carried material for children, including a Yiddish version of Monopoly. Even more unusual was the selection of refrigerator magnets, including ones featuring the stern face of a rabbi with a mystical inscription which, if used properly, promised to repel mice and rats.
The Real Highlight
Perhaps my most exciting discovery was a simple, hard bound book entitled Himmel Signaln (Sky Signs), a Hasidic response to the events of September 11, 2001.
The book’s cover illustration is a low-resolution, poorly Photoshopped depiction of the World Trade Center devastation on 9/11, or, as the book would have it, the devastation of “21 Elul.” Indeed, the subtitle of the book reads: The Survivors and Martyrs of the 21 Elul (“September 11″) Tragedy. September 11 is set off by quotation marks, making it clear which reckoning of time is legitimate. The writer and publisher of the book is a rather mysterious entity designated as “Yud Yud Samech” (in Hebrew characters).
Interpreting Divine Providence
Opening this book, one enters into something of an alternate reality. Before even reaching the table of contents, the reader is confronted by an advertisement for authentic “Rabbi Meir Baal Ha’Nes Pushkes” (tzedakah boxes). And yes, they accept Visa and MasterCard.
Immediately following the ad page, there is a genuinely touching two-page acknowledgement of valued, righteous community members that perished in the attacks. Two victims are mentioned by name, with brief biographical sketches included.
Making 9/11 A Mayseh
While Himmel Signaln contains a history of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the bulk of the text consists of personal accounts of various people who were miraculously saved from the 9/11 attacks. Each survivor story reads like a mayseh (a fantastic tale usually imparting some moral or educational function). The stories often begin, “Mr. So-and-So, a ba’al torah and mitzvos [a phrase that suggests the person is a religiously observant Jew] from New Jersey…” and then proceeds to explain the miracle of his survival on 9/11.
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