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Manhattan Dispatch: Homecoming

At 9 a.m. on September 11, I was sitting in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, reading an Israeli newspaper and feeling very far from home. Almost the entire news section focused on the suicide bombing at the train station in the northern town of Nahariya two days before, claiming three lives and wounding nearly 100. My 16-year-old daughter, who'd spent the weekend with a friend near the Lebanon border, had been at the Nahariya station and had boarded a train for Tel Aviv just before the suicide bombing; her friend's father, who'd dropped her off at the station, was lightly wounded. And so I was desperate for real news, the names and faces of the dead and the details that get misplaced in the broad strokes of American reporting from abroad. I'd left my native New York for Israel 19 years ago, in part because I wanted to know Israel not just from the headlines but from the back pages.

The unbearable intimacy of Israel intruded: One of the Nahariya dead, I read, was a 19-year-old soldier who'd graduated from the elementary school my children had attended. I tried to conceal my weeping from the oblivious diners. At that moment, my alienation from America felt complete. Since arriving here two weeks earlier for a book tour, I'd been trying to explain to people what it now meant to be an Israeli--the loss of solidity and of faith in the future, the transformation of the little details of daily life into potentially momentous decisions, like whether to allow your child to go to Nahariya. And the growing realization of how helpless we were: The week before, two car bombs had exploded in my Jerusalem neighborhood, French Hill; though both bombs had been set prematurely and no one was hurt, we knew the reprieve was temporary. My disorientation in America was embodied by its ambulance sirens: When an Israeli hears a siren, he waits for the second one, and when he hears the third, he turns on the television. In America, though, a siren was just--a siren.

And so even well-intentioned Americans, including many Jews I encountered, couldn't quite understand. One Jewish leader in Los Angeles confided that he couldn't recall a time of such crisis in Israel when the American Jewish community was so lethargic. When some acquaintances piously invoked the "cycle of violence," I felt as if I were trapped in a soundproof room with a psychopathic killer, while outsiders peered in and clucked about the lunatics.

And then, shortly after 9 a.m., the maitre d' discreetly made the rounds among the Manhattan diners and informed us that a plane had just exploded into the World Trade Center. I waited for someone to turn on a radio, for the restaurant to collectively gasp, but the conversations continued uninterrupted. I realized then how absurd we journalists were to describe Israel as an atomized society. In any Israeli restaurant, normal life would have been suspended instantly. But we are, after all, practiced in the habit of emergency.

Outside, on Fifth Avenue, there were more familiar "Israeli" scenes, obscuring the line between the personal and the political. Strangers gathered around cars whose radios were turned up. "Now it's war," one man with a Spanish accent said to me, repeating a phrase Israelis invoke after every terrorist atrocity. Still, among the thousands of shocked people were some who joked and laughed loudly--even as the World Trade Center burned in full view directly before them. I'd been to many scenes of terrorist attacks in Israel, but that shamelessness was new to me. So was the sight of an enterprising young man hawking transistor radios. While the Israeli instinct is to crowd around a terrorist scene and submerge oneself in a press of bodies, here the impulse was to flee. Many even averted their eyes at the cloud of smoke covering the skyscraper-framed horizon.

I had this terrible, inevitable Israeli thought: Maybe now they'll understand. Maybe now they'll stop moralizing to us about killing terrorists and stop indulging Palestinian rejectionism. Maybe now they'll understand why we can't "share" Jerusalem with Yasir Arafat, and that this isn't just a conflict between mighty Israel and defenseless Palestine but between the Arab world and the lone non-Muslim state in the region. Maybe we won't feel so desperately alone anymore.

Later that day, I was standing on a street corner in Queens, far from the devastation. A plane flew overhead, and people turned anxiously to follow its trajectory. Then an ambulance appeared. All sound seemed subsumed in its siren; everyone paused, as if waiting for the next ambulance. For the first time since I'd left nearly 20 years ago, New York City felt like home.

This article originally ran in the September 24, 2001 issue of the magazine.