Mark Oppenheimer’s love letter to Squirrel Hill
When Greg Zanis heard about the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh in October 2018, he knew that in a few hours he would be on the road to Pennsylvania from his home in Illinois.
Since the shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999, Zanis has been to the site of nearly every major mass murder in the United States. He shows up in his van with hand-made crosses four feet high to commemorate the victims. If they are Jews, he makes them stars of David; for Muslims, commemorative signs are crescent moon.
Zanis was a “gold medalist” in the “Olympiad of what we might call amateur crisis responders, or maybe extreme amateur crisis responders, âwrites Mark Oppenheimer, editor-in-chief at Tablet and a different kind of crisis worker.
The year after 11 Jews were gunned down during a Saturday morning Shabbat prayer service in Pittsburgh’s close-knit Squirrel Hill neighborhood, Oppenheimer visited Pittsburgh 32 times. Instead of therapy dogs or makeshift memorials, he came armed with a pen, paper, and tape recorder. The result is his new book, Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood, which will be released by Knopf on October 5.
The book recounts how the individuals of Squirrel Hill responded, adjusted, cried, and carried on through that first year, culminating in a portrait of a community whose “special qualities made it particularly resilient as a result of ‘a massacre,’ Oppenheimer said. Jewish initiate in a recent interview. It was a community in crisis, but one which had the means to continue. That’s what he wanted to capture.
âI always tried to keep in mind that everything I went through was nothing compared to what they had been through,â Oppenheimer said of his visits to Squirrel Hill. âMy job is to listen to them and present them as carefully and faithfully as possible, and as sincerely as possible. “
Story in Jewish History: The xenophobic gunman posted anti-Semitic screeds online, and he chose the synagogue because it was on a list of congregations hosting a âRefugee Shabbatâ in conjunction with the resettlement agency HIAS refugees. But it’s also a familiar American story – just the latest massacre for a nation that has become accustomed to mass shootings.
The book is not meant to be a chronicle of the attack that occurred almost three years ago. It’s a story and ethnography of what Oppenheimer considers a quintessentially American neighborhood.
âI think anyone interested in how cities have become vital hubs for immigrants and for people who want a piece of the American Dream will really appreciate what Squirrel Hill has to offer,â Oppenheimer said.
The Squirrel Hill Jewish community has its roots in the mid-19th century, when a group of four Jewish immigrants – including Oppenheimer’s great-great-great-grandfather – founded the first Jewish funeral society in the community. Oppenheimer grew up in Springfield, Mass., And now lives in New Haven, Connecticut, but he has a particular fondness for the feeling that Squirrel Hill offers.
While Pittsburgh’s population grew only 2% between 2000 and 2020, the region’s Jewish community grew by around 17%, reaching 50,000 Jews. (This puts the city roughly on par with Cleveland.)
âPittsburgh is not unique, but it is special. There are special things about it, âOppenheimer explained. âMany neighborhoods in Pittsburgh look like small towns with business districts, public schools, libraries, malls and places of worship, all located fairly centrally and accessible to people who radiate from these areas. central poles. â
Pittsburgh also has “a long history of being a fairly tolerant place,” Oppenheimer said.
In the book, he takes that argument a step further, calling Squirrel Hill “America’s oldest, most stable, and most diverse Jewish neighborhood.”
But the Squirrel Hill that readers discover isn’t just the Jewish Squirrel Hill. This is Oppenheimer’s central argument – that the neighborhood works because there is a degree of harmony and alliance between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors.
âI am an American and believe in the virtues of living in a diverse and pluralistic country,â Oppenheimer noted. “What you saw in the aftermath of the Tree of Life shooting is that a lot of people stepped forward as fellow citizens to reassure us that they were part of that fabric.” In the days following the attack, members of the Islamic Center in Pittsburgh raised more over $ 70,000 for the synagogue, and local Muslims helped distribute money for funeral expenses and medical bills.
But even in a place with a history of tolerance, members of minority communities still sometimes feel a sense of otherness. âYou never say, ‘We got there and we got there,’â Oppenheimer explained. “We always have to relearn history, relearn what other groups are going through and their experiences.”
For Jews, this could mean learning more about the experience of the black community in Pittsburgh. And for the non-Jewish residents of Squirrel Hill, it means remembering that even three years after the attack, their Jewish neighbors are in trouble.
âI think most of the good guys have largely forgotten about the attack,â Oppenheimer said. “I even met some good people inside Pittsburgh who lived a few miles away [and] who were a bit unclear as to whether the attack took place a year ago or 10 years ago, didn’t quite remember which neighborhood it was in.
Although Oppenheimer preferred to focus on stories of resilience and acts of chesed among members of the Squirrel Hill community, he could not ignore the larger story of anti-Semitism. Another synagogue shooting took place in Poway, California, just six months after the Tree of Life attack. One person was killed and three others were injured, including the rabbi of the Chabad synagogue.
âReporting on this book forced me to confront the pervasiveness of low-level anti-Semitism in America,â Oppenheimer said. He was not referring to the shootings in the synagogue but to the vitriolic and assaults “most keenly felt by Jews who present themselves as Jews: Orthodox Jews and others who, through their costume or other signifiers, like entering a synagogue on Shabbat, or wearing a lulav and etrog on Sukkot, or wearing a kippah, or wearing a wig if it concerns women, present as Jews.
Part of what makes Squirrel Hill unique is that the most visibly Jewish people are part of the same community as the more secular Jews. Their synagogues, schools and restaurants are located within a relatively small radius.
This sense of oneness at Squirrel Hill was put to the test almost immediately after the attack, when members of the local branch of the progressive Jewish organization Bend the Arc staged a protest against the then president, Donald Trump, who visited the community shortly after the shooting.
The shooting “took place in western Pennsylvania, which is one of the most purple places and one of the most polarized places in the country,” Oppenheimer said. âIt was always going to be politicized. Certainly, the fact that Trump came to town on the Tuesday after the shooting, came to town while they were burying the bodies and sitting shiva, made things even more controversial and more politicized.
But then something surprising happened. âFor me, what’s really interesting is all the ways this community, not just the Jewish community, but Squirrel Hill and Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania in general, hold together. People have nevertheless managed to find spaces to treat each other decently and to consider themselves as fellow citizens, despite the very real fact of polarization. “