JWR Tales of the World Wild Web

Jewish World Review Nov. 1, 2001 / 15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

E-mails from the
end of the world

Ground Zero guardians for vanished friends.

By Jonathan Mark

ANDREW ZUCKER was 27 years old with 21 nights left to live. He was expecting a new baby and had just started work as an attorney on the 85th floor of the World Trade Center. He had a spectacular view of the end of the world.

On the hot night of Aug. 21, at the end of America's endless summer, terrorists were already planning a 21st century death camp in Lower Manhattan. It was a night when most of us were less conversant about the Taliban than about Chandra's vanishing. Andrew Zucker, who was soon to vanish, e-mailed an Internet petition among his friends: He could see the end of the world. The United Nations had to do more to contain the Taliban, he wrote. They were destroying Buddhas and making Hindus wear a yellow cloth. It reminded Zucker of Hitler.

The e-mail added, "All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

I did nothing. I deleted it. Wait, did I say he sent that e-mail to friends? I flatter myself. We barely knew each other. I was never in his home, except in print. He never came to our office, except via e-mail. We met last autumn in the Riverdale Jewish Center, our neighborhood shul, after a concert of Jewish music. Andrew was in the corridor, raising his voice as the music blared, encouraging people to sign up to monitor the media's coverage of Israel. It was biased, he said.

Andrew was a severe critic, and I disagreed with him by half, but that soon gave way to tenderness. What was he really saying? It was less about any particular article but that he couldn't bear Jewish death and Israel's vulnerability and appeasing terrorists: "So two totally innocent [Jews in Israel] are shot in cold blood with machine guns," he e-mailed last December. "A 4th-grade teacher and a driver. Let's see what CNN and The New York Times have to say about this one."

Or he'd only ask that I say Tehillim (Psalms). Someone was sick. Another died young and left children. As the world seemed more fragile, his e-mails became more personal: "It was good to see you the other day ... thanks for the bracha [blessing.]"

Andrew admitted to needing a blessing. His widow is expecting his baby and, back in the spring, his first baby, Abigail Bayla Rina, died at birth: "[In] the short time that we knew her, in some way she touched all of us. Dayenu - that joy, the smiles she brought, the time we had. Somehow, even that was enough. It is excruciating for us to imagine that only having Abbe for the short time that we did is enough, but Hashem obviously had a special plan for her neshama [soul]."

Who can fathom a child's burial? He asked then, and so many ask it now. He e-mailed, "At our age, burial plots couldn't have been further from our minds. ... May we celebrate many simchas together."

On Sept. 16, e-mail from another reader contained a clip from OnlySimchas.com, a site requesting help in identifying the whereabouts of Jews who vanished on Black Tuesday. One item among many: "We are looking for information on Andrew Zucker. He is married to Erica (Konovitch). He is 6'1", about 300 lbs. He has brown hair and brown eyes and a 4" scar along his lower back from surgery. He works at Harris Beach, 85th floor in 2 WTC." Zucker was still written of in the present tense. Where was he?

How many times did Andrew e-mail about CNN? Now CNN had their say about Zucker: "Searching for a loved one - and hoping, praying."

According to CNN on-line, "As her sister desperately wandered the streets of lower Manhattan, Erica Zucker spent Wednesday [Sept. 12] making phone calls. Hoping. Praying. It's been nearly two days since she last spoke with her husband, a frantic call placed moments after the first jetliner careened into the north tower ... It was a short conversation. He reassured his wife. 'He said, 'I'm OK. I'll call you back,' Erica recalled. 'And he hung up.' Moments later a second jetliner crashed into the south tower - Andrew Zucker's tower."

Family and friends went from NYU Medical Center, to Bellevue Hospital, to Beekman Hospital. Then they looked to gather hair samples from his brown hair.

All these weeks later, souls hover in the night over Lower Manhattan. On 30th Street near the East River, three trucks from the Medical Examiner's office are loaded with body parts.

There is the sweetest of mitzvas (religious acts that make one G-d-like) known as shmira, in which a dead Jewish body - in whatever condition - is never left unattended before burial. The Jewish Community Relations Council approached Rabbi Allen Schwartz, spiritual leader of Ohab Zedek on the Upper West Side, to organize the shmira, but his group was having trouble finding shomrim to stay for Friday night and Shabbes (Sabbath) day.

Stern College is near the trucks, so Jessica Russak, a Stern senior, put together a team of 10 Stern women within an hour of hearing there was a problem. In turn, they sit by the trucks, whispering Psalms through the midnight hours. "An immense number of Jewish souls were comforted by our prayers," Russak says. Is Zucker among those souls?

Perhaps Zucker is still at Ground Zero. I sat as Zucker's shomer on a milk crate on Maiden Lane and Broadway on a recent weeknight into the wee small hours. The death camp at Ground Zero was flooded with brutally harsh light, creating its own perimeter in the blackness. Smoke was rising, made all the eerier by the illumination. Gnarled metal beams hung in midair like a frozen waterfall in the remains of the day. On Broadway, soldiers in camouflage rolled by on lorries. The smell of incineration and death wafted through the air when the winds blew east.

On one of the nights of watching, students from the Isralight educational group came by. They stood around a blue wax candle in a glass that shielded the flame from the wind. As the group's leader, Rav Binny Friedman, played Shlomo Carlebach and Breslov songs, young Barnard College freshmen rested their heads on each other's shoulders. Neshama Carlebach, Shlomo's daughter, listened to the old songs with her arms around a bride-to-be. They all came for Andrew Zucker, even if most didn't know him.

Rav Binny said, as he strummed his guitar, that Andrew was a friend of his. "He was an amazing person, Andrew Zucker. Chaim Zalman ben Zusha v'Sara." He told how Zucker raced into the mailroom, grabbing two clerks by the arms, dragging them to safety, then racing back into the office to save another.

"The incredible thing," says Rav Binny, as he calls himself, "is that he was only working in that firm for six weeks. He didn't really know most of the people. And we can tell a story like that every day for the next 5,000 days."

As the group dispersed, a woman from Borough Park who had come on her own said Sodom must have smoldered like this. Another said no, there were righteous people in there. Rather, it was a havdalah candle, two flames, the end of an endless Sabbath.

Neshama Carlebach said Jerusalem must have looked like this on the 10th of Av, with one small wall standing.

"Did you have any friends in there?" she asked. "We hardly knew each other," I said, before remembering that Andrew Zucker ran through fire for people he hardly knew.

I would have sent a final e-mail with a prayer I'm sure he knew: "I am yours and my dreams are yours. I have dreamed a dream and I don't know what it means."

JWR contributor Jonathan Mark is Associate Editor of the New York Jewish Week. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, New York Jewish Week