I arrived in Washington D.C. in the evening of May 1, 2011, having spent the day in Baltimore at a family event honoring the 40th anniversary of my grandfather's death. Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Hertzberg was a well-known Hasidic rabbi in Baltimore and to this day his synagogue is referred to as "Hertzberg's shul". My father, his oldest son, was a prominent Conservative rabbi in 20th century Jewish life; he passed away five years ago during Passover, so we had just marked his yahrzeit (the anniversary of his death) as well. All my surviving aunts and uncles, as well as nearly all my cousins who lived in the U.S., came to Baltimore that day to revere and remember my grandfather.
It is ironic that the date of Osama bin Laden's death is now one and the same as that of my grandfather. While he was a highly learned and observant Jew, my grandfather was very tolerant of those who differed from him in their beliefs and level of observance. He supported individuals and institutions from all walks of Jewish life, and was a great believer in social justice. My father, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, continued that tradition in his own way, being one of the great Zionists of the 20th century as well as a well-known politically liberal thinker. Through it all, my father never forgot the loss of Jewish life, society, and culture in Europe, since he had emigrated with his family to the U.S. at age six. He took the events of September 11, 2001 very hard, and not just because he had spent many years living in the New York metropolitan area. I believe it was because he again saw the same mortal threats to civilized society, now in his adopted country, that he had experienced as a child and young adult.
When my son called me from California and told me to turn on the news at 10:30 that evening, I had no idea what to expect. I quickly learned that Osama bin Laden was reported to have been killed in a raid in Pakistan. For the next 45 minutes I flipped channels waiting for the President's announcement. In the meantime a crowd was gathering at the White House, which is only two blocks from the hotel. A number of my friends and colleagues who were also in Washington for the ASA Legislative Conference did join the crowds that night and stayed for a number of hours. The crowd grew until it filled up Lafayette Park and Square beyond the White House, and the celebration continued into the early morning hours. Those on the side of the hotel facing in that direction were kept awake by the noise.
I considered going over to the White House, but the crowd seemed exuberant and rowdy. I knew the event was historically significant but somehow it did not feel right to me; I am grateful that Osama bin Laden is gone, but I could not make myself want to celebrate his death. I am not even certain that anything has really changed. The forces of evil, intolerance, and injustice still exist in our world. The words of the Jewish Kaddish, the prayer for the dead in which one praises God and prays for peace, seemed more appropriate.
The next morning I walked over to the White House with a friend. The scene there, except for the multitude of TV cameramen waiting to see if something else would happen, was close to normal. Small groups of tourists and onlookers like us, arrived and moved on. It was a beautiful spring day and we walked from the White House to the Washington Monument, then back to the hotel. It seemed surreal to be in D.C. on the day after, with life proceeding normally for the inhabitants and visitors. It was very different from 9/11, when even in California far away from the events, I felt myself reeling for weeks.
The ASA Legislative Conference began later that afternoon. We spent the next two days in sessions packed with information about the Washington political process and the issues we hoped to discuss with our lawmakers. The events of Sunday night were mentioned, but not dwelled upon. When we went to visit our Congressmen in the Capitol, the heightened security we had anticipated did not appear to any great extent. Our representatives and their aides were still available for our appointments and listened attentively to our concerns. However, Monday night I dreamed of airplanes crashing. I knew then that the aftermath of 9/11 and bin Laden's death was still fresh for me.
I believe that for each of us this will become one of those events-like John F. Kennedy's assassination, the Challenger explosion, and 9/11-that we will remember always. We will recall very specific things about where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news. For me, Osama bin Laden's death will always be linked to feelings of ambivalence while walking around Washington D.C. the day after, a beautiful glorious spring day.