This article originally appeared on September 24th, 2001.

As someone who has spent much of his professional life immersed in the American popular culture, I have long been troubled by its pernicious effects on children. Rock stars and movie actors have become our kid’s heroes. My own young daughters, although raised in an orthodox home were their exposure to the culture is at a minimum, still tell me that when they grow up they want to be actresses.

Enter the horrible events of September 11, 2001.  Sometimes, the greatest light emerges from the deepest darkness. And now, one of America’s most terminal ills is being healed by the tragic events of the World Trade Center disaster. America awoke to a different landscape on the morning of September 12. The tall man-made structures that once dominated the environs were no more. But far from Manhattan being desolate, in its place now stood the towering and giant figure of a new kind of hero. Carrying his dusty and soiled fire coat, dragging his weary bones back to the scene of the disaster, wiping the sweat from his blackened brow beneath his battered fire helmet, this brand new real-life hero dominated the New York skyline.

Just think how far we’ve come in two weeks. Prior to September 11th, the heroes of nearly all our children were the idols of the popular culture; the celebrity singers, the small-waisted starlets, the giant NBA stars, the top fashion models. America was a society that loved the famous and lavished the rich. We devoured the gossip columns for each morsel of Russel Crowe’s latest conquest, and we stared fixated at HBO for Carrie Bradshaw’s latest installment. We worshiped the movie star, we adulated the rock star, and lionized the millionaire. These were the all-American heroes.

We closed our eyes and imagined ourselves as them. We were awed by their Cliffside houses and their tall bodyguards. We looked at our own everyday spouses, and felt the shame of ordinariness, and so often wished for a life that was more like the ones we watched on Entertainment Tonight.

It did not matter how many divorces the average Hollywood movie star had been through, how many illegal drugs they might have abused, or how many abandoned children they may have sired. We followed these heroes in and out of rehab, in and out of custody battles, and in and out of lurid scandals. Throughout all this, our worship remained in tact, although we are always willing to welcome new inhabitants of the celebrity fishbowl. Demi Moore moved over to let Catherine Zeta Jones in, Kobe Bryant filled the shoes left by Michael Jordan.

But last week in America, all this changed. Amidst the rubble and the smoke emerged a hero not celebrated for their mimicry in front of a movie camera, or their shapeliness in a bikini, or their ability to throw a ball through a hoop. As we watched with sadness, shock and anger at the devastation caused by the brute terrorists, we began to admire men and women who are near the bottom of the earning ladder but at the pinnacle of the hero’s summit. Our collective consciousness became focused on those who helped others: the firefighter, racked with grief but firm with resolve, the people of New York who had to be turned away from the blood banks when too many showed to give of their very life so that others might live. We sat riveted to our television sets in the hope that one of the rescuers would save someone from the rubble. In the midst of all this true heroism, the deeds of movie stars and athletes seemed so, well, ordinary. Who really cared if someone stepped out in a Versace dress, or if someone’s batting average improved over the last week?

Those were such minor accomplishments when compared with the heroism of those who were walking through the valley of the shadow of death so that they might bring a soul or two the land of the living. Miraculously, in the week following the WTC bombings, the gossip columnists curbed their columns- so transfixed were we as a nation on those that were actually doing something worthwhile, that we had no energy, or desire to focus on the shallow and trivial.

I have long been arguing that we need a return to the Biblical Hero, the man or woman who does not need to lead great armies across foreign countries, or sell 40 million albums, because he or she operates out of greatness, rather than insecurity. The Biblical hero, like Abraham, is famous for arguing with G-d to spare the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Biblical hero, like Moses, is celebrated for being ‘the most humble man who walked the earth.’ In short, the Biblical hero is the unsung hero, the everyday man or woman who quietly goes about life conferring dignity on all they encounter, and giving hope to all who seem forlorn. The Biblical hero is the fireman who lives in blue-collar neighborhoods in Long Island, and risks his life to save the investment banker who makes more in a year than he will make in a decade. The Biblical hero is the ambulance worker who rushed into the smoldering inferno of the World Trade Center when there was no television camera to capture the images for the evening news. The Biblical hero knows that there is a spark of the divine in him or her and in every human being, and acts to honor that spark.

In the past week, our children were finally given real heroes to emulate. We must hope that one of the lasting effects of this week’s events will be for our kids to take down the posters of Curt Cobain and replace them with Dan Walsh from Long Island, Fire Company 5, Ladder 4. And then, maybe, with our children having an image of greatness before them, will they stand a fighting chance of becoming achieving feats of real heroism as great men and women.

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