Days of Awe

Ayn Rand, born a Jew, escaped Russian anti-Semitism and communism in 1926 when she first viewed the Statue of Liberty and made it to the USA. Rand treasured New York skyscrapers and saw them as symbols of the American freedom and capitalism she coveted.

From an early age, this outspoken philosopher disdained religion with a fervor akin to her communist arch-enemies. In the wake of the 9/11 atrocity, Ayn Rand would likely have felt further contempt for Islam and religion in general. Think Bill Maher, only seventy years ago, female, serious, and right wing. Read Atlas Shrugged.

Pamela Geller, a proud New York Jew, with a blog named Atlas Shrugs, has led the opposition to the controversial Ground Zero mosque. Pamela Geller is not nuanced nor was her 9/11/10 rally. Many tens of thousands of people were there in support. I was also there, distant blocks up Broadway at the rear of the crowd, where diversity of opinion was evident.

9/11 arrived this year right after Rosh Hashanah and Ramadan. Unobserved in many parts of America, these days are different in multi-cultural NYC. Amid religious holidays, tragic memorials, and rancorous rallies, the Big Apple still shines with diversity, energy, and tolerance. The First Amendment gets lots of exercise in Manhattan.

At our second day Rosh Hashanah service, the rabbis at my Denver synagogue led a discussion about the propriety of the proposed mosque near Ground Zero. It should come as no surprise that in a room full of Jews, there was a variety of opinions.

All concede the legal right. The issue is right versus wrong. The rabbis pointed toward religious passages that supported various arguments. Jews certainly know what it means to be told not to build a house of worship in a certain area.

When wrestling with an issue, I find it useful to travel to the scene. Following a red-eye flight to JFK and a ride on the A subway train, what new perspectives I gained on this 9/11. I procured a World Center Hotel room with a window view within a whisker or two of the WTC site, which is, blessedly, finally being reborn.

I listened to Mayor Bloomberg and the other politicians speak after the moment of silence at 8:46 a.m. I stood behind police barricades near Trinity Church on Wall Street and wept with hundreds of others as family members read the seemingly endless alphabetical list of murder victims.

I needed to walk. The Battery Park Synagogue and Lady Liberty were nearby. So was the site for the controversial proposed mosque/community center, Cordoba House/Park51. I wandered through a lot of lower Manhattan. Hours passed. The next time I got within earshot of the memorial microphones, I was surprised to hear they had only gotten to the R's:

"... Mark Rosen, Brooke David Rosenbaum, Linda Rosenbaum, Sheryl Lynn Rosenbaum, Lloyd Daniel Rosenberg, Mark Louis Rosenberg, Andrew Ira Rosenblum, Joshua M. Rosenblum, Joshua Alan Rosenthal, Richard David Rosenthal, Philip Martin Rosenzweig..."

I wondered what Ayn Rand, originally named Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum, would have been thinking if she was standing next to me. Religion, families and ethnicity matter in this debate. We need to know all the driving forces.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all Abrahamic religions. Late in life, Abraham fathered two boys, Ishmael and Isaac. On Rosh Hashanah, Jews recite the Torah portion about the near sacrifice of Isaac (or was it Ishmael) at the hand of his father Abraham.

Believing that he was following G-d's command, Abraham bound his beloved son, and was going to perform the murderous atrocity, but for the words of an intervening angel. The Torah portion is Akedat Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac).

Fast forward from Akedat to Al Queda. These evil terrorists prepared, and then perpetrated, the fundamentalist religious atrocity of 9/11. No angel intervened on that awful day in NYC. These murderers were devoted Islamists who thought certain that their brutality was the command of Allah.

Where did they learn that? How did they arrive at such a disturbing conclusion? How many Muslims share these views? Does the Koran support this violence? Is Islam in serious need of reform?

Is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf a clergyman of peace? What about the owner-developer of Cordoba House/Park51? How can the mosque builders boast that the mosque location is "iconic" because it is "where a piece of the wreckage fell" and then complain when critics call it Ground Zero and hallowed ground? Is this meant to be a triumphal mosque?

These are fair questions. The First Amendment protects these inquiries just as much as freedom of religion. Incompatible with free speech is intimidation. Here in the USA, we cannot countenance any ideology which suppresses words and thoughts and questions.

The First Amendment was the big winner on 9/11/10 in the streets of lower Manhattan. The 1:00 p.m. City Hall Park rally in favor of the mosque was raucous and edgy, with lots of verbal skirmishes. NYPD, heroes of 9/11/01, were out in massive force again on 9/11/10, to keep NYC as safe as possible in a free society.

Two hours later and two blocks west, Geller's gathering at Park and Broadway was much larger and better organized -- with a giant video screen and excellent sound system. Multiple blocks of Broadway were packed with Geller's supporters waving American flags. Toward the back, there was dissension. Some neighborhood residents and mourners were upset with the disruption of their home turf -- especially again on 9/11.

This is indeed a local issue for NYC to resolve. But just like 9/11, it also affects America -- and the world. Vocal disruptions and discourse are often needed to get at the truth. During the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the shofar makes a mighty sound designed to disrupt and to wake us up and stir the minds of thinking human beings.