And Now – Pittsburgh

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tags: Pittsburgh, antisemitism

Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for “The Marginalia Review of Books,” a channel of the “Los Angeles Review of Books.” A frequent contributor at several sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post Religion will be released by Zero Books in November of 2018. He can be followed at his website or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

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●  HNN Topic:  Antisemitism

What historians are saying about the attack:  Their tweets and retweets

An eruv is normally a thin line of metal wire that stretches across the tops of telephone poles, barely visible to an observer who doesn’t expect it, looking scarcely different from the normal infrastructure that you would see in any large city – perhaps a line to bring cable television into homes. But the purpose of an eruv is different; rather it serves to encompass a Jewish community entirely within a symbolic border, whereby private and public domains are blurred and it becomes possible for Orthodox Jews to carry whatever needs to be carried outside of their literal homes on both the Sabbath and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. 

In Pittsburgh the eruv encircles almost the entire historically Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, as well as Greenfield, parts of Regent Square, and Point Breeze, where I grew up. It runs down Forbes Ave, past verdant Frick Park and the Victorian mausoleums of Homewood Cemetery; through porched homes on South Braddock Avenue, and along the edge of the Parkway East; it briefly runs parallel to the meandering, brown Monongahela River, and snakes up Browns Hill Road; to the west it briefly dips into Schenley Park past college students playing frisbee or sunbathing (depending on the season); and it traces back around Wilkins Avenue. This thin wisp of ephemeral wire turns what is public into a common treasury – it converts an entire community into a home. More than that it functions as a membrane, as a skin; binding neighbors together as one body. A few hours ago, somebody whose name doesn’t deserve to be mentioned pierced that skin, walking into the Tree of Life Synagogue on Wilkins Avenue with an assault rifle, and killing at least eleven congregants there to celebrate a bris. I still don’t know who among the dead that I might know. 

One of the largest urban Jewish neighborhoods outside of the New York metropolitan area, the community is home to dozens of synagogues across the entire theological spectrum, from small Hasidic shuls to massive Reform temples; from liberal Reconstructionist communities to modern Orthodox congregations. One of the city’s largest and most diverse neighborhoods it’s always been a haven for immigrants, from the burgeoning communities of Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese who have opened up restaurants and shops which line Forbes Avenue and the long crooked, cement-cracked spine of Murray Avenue, to middle eastern immigrants who in the years before Pittsburgh’s Muslim community would grow large enough to support halal markets, would do their grocery shopping at Kosher Mart. 

Bordering both Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, the neighborhood has always been an intellectual’s paradise, the sort of place where homes are stuffed with an ungodly number of books and where the Carnegie Library is among the most frequented in the entire commonwealth. Squirrel Hill tolerates idiosyncrasy, uniqueness, oddness. Wandering the blocks of the central business district are scores of characters, dreamers, and schemers, scores of delightfully weird and open people. This was the location of the Presbyterian Church that Mr. Rogers, an ordained minister, would preach at. This is where Hasidic families walking to shul on Saturdays wish each other a “Gut Shabbos,” something that owes more to Crown Heights than it does to the Midwest. Squirrel Hill is exemplary of America, of the best of the country. Which is why as our nation cannibalizes itself in a nightmare of fascistic hatred, it was the locus of this evil act.   

Such is the continual nightmare of this American bloodletting, this “American carnage,” these horrific, dark, exhausting, terrible, hellish atrocities visited upon our communities every single day. Too many of you reading already know what it is like to see your towns, your neighborhoods, your cities profiled on television and the internet after such hell has been visited upon it; too many of you know the surrealism of seeing those places which you love suddenly plastered across media because of the actions of evil men. And many of you who do not understand it inevitably will someday, and for that I am heartbroken. And for that I am angry. 

That Jews were the target of this person’s delusional rage is not surprising, at least not to anyone who has paid attention to both the vagaries of history and the hateful rhetoric that permeates our discourse right now. This is not an issue of “civility,” or “both sides are responsible.” No, I feel completely entitled to examine the poisonous fruit of our current political culture, and to rightfully accuse those who now occupy the highest positions of power and influence in our nation, and to point to them as being those who are responsible for sowing such discord. Every antisemitic dog whistle, every hateful meme, every manipulative conspiracy theory promulgated by the current administration leads a path to what happened in Squirrel Hill today. But that man who occupies the White House, that person who can’t even utter condolences without blaming the victims whose blood is still warm – that man does not deserve to have every single story be about him. So content in knowing his responsibility, I will not mention him again here. 

Because Pittsburgh – Pittsburgh is blessed. And Squirrel Hill – Squirrel Hill is blessed. So today, we say a baruch for Pittsburgh, for Squirrel Hill. We think of hanging out with friends in the dwindling twilight of a June evening on Forbes Avenue, eating Italian ice and seeing the sun reflected off the tops of distant skyscrapers. We think of the winding, cobble-stone streets snaking up the hill, and we think of mighty sand-colored synagogues which dwell at their tops as if golems surveying their villages. We think of pastrami at Rhoda’s, pancakes at Pamela’s, cheesesteaks at Uncle Sam’s, cheesecake at Gullifty’s, pizza at Mineo’s, midnight breakfast buffet at Eat n’ Park, and Iron City at the Squirrel Cage. We think of the boys in their black hats and the girls in their long skirts trailing behind them as they walk to yeshiva. We think of the Hebrew letters on the clock set in its tower at the JCC looking over the intersection of Forbes and Murray, and we think of creased used paperbacks by I.B. Singer and Joseph Roth purchased at Amazing Books or Classic Lines. We think of the triumph in vinyl in the rows of Jerry’s Records, and we think of Christmas Chinese food dinners at How Lee or Chengdu. We say kaddish for those we lost; for wives and husbands; for sisters and brothers; for mothers and fathers; for daughters and sons. For friends. But we need not say kaddish for Squirrel Hill, for she is still there. 

Squirrel Hill will always be my home, and my heart will always be in Squirrel Hill. When I was a teenager, my friends and I used to hang out “upstreet” on Forbes and Murray after school ended, incongruously grabbing cheesesteaks as Shabbos would begin in the early descending sunsets of winter. There was a period when we took to wishing each other a “Gut Shabbos” on those Friday afternoons, and though Judaism was not a tradition in which I was raised I was irresistibly drawn to this ritual, not just because of the sense of community which it offered, but in the mystical apprehension that the Sabbath could be as a world unto itself, a utopia of not space, but of time. In much medieval Jewish poetry, the Sabbath is presented as a Queen, who ushers in a brief kingdom that is as respite from the horror of this world. The modernist poet Hayim Nahman Bialik, in imitation of those Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino lyrics, wrote in a poem that the “sun has already disappeared beyond the treetops, /Come let us go and welcome the Sabbath Queen, /She is already descending among us, holy and blessed, /And with her are angels, a host of peace and rest.” 

Today I think of a different poem, by Pittsburgh and Squirrel Hill’s native son, the great Gerald Stern, who in his lyric “The Dancing” records his family’s reaction to the end of the Second World War. He writes that he never “heard Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ the way I did/in 1945 in that tiny living room/on Beechwood Boulevard” (which intersects Shady Avenue only a block away from Tree of Life). Stern writes that he never “danced as I did/then…doing the dance/of old Ukraine” for “the world at last a meadow, /the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us/screaming and falling, as if we were dying, /as if we could never stop” here “in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh.” The wisdom of “The Dancing” is the wisdom of the Sabbath, that even in the midst of such pain, sorrow, heartbreak, and evil, there is still the respite of that sacred day, when we sing a prayer of both the “God of mercy,” and of that “wild God.” Auto-da-Fe could not abolish the Sabbath, nor could pogrom, nor gas chamber, nor bullet. As I write this it is still the Sabbath. And a week again there shall be another one. And the week after that, it shall come again. Forever, both here and in Squirrel Hill, and everywhere elsewhere people are still capable of love. 


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