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I Grieve with The Jewish Community of Squirrel Hill

 

Saturday morning, an unspeakable tragedy unfolded at a Jewish Temple in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. I stared at the TV in stunned silence, as my gut tightened into a painful knot. As I watched law enforcement running among flashing lights and chaos, the details emerged of mass casualties and injured. I turned to Fox News and saw the beautiful neighborhood where I once lived, with Fall trees aglow in bright orange, red and yellow, shadowed by mass casualty trucks and men in fatigues carrying assault weapons. A spokesman for the city said ‘an attack on this community and faith is an attack on all of our communities and faiths’. I knew these were not mere words of comfort, but a deep truth that all who are from Pittsburgh understand. Later in life, Squirrel Hill’s predominantly Jewish population would embrace me on a personal level.

As a child growing up in Brookline, a suburb of Pittsburgh, my classrooms and friends were composed of Italians, Jews, Greeks, Lebanese, Syrians, Irish, Poles, and Ukrainians. I was as familiar with delicious ethnic foods, holidays and traditions as though they were my own, and some were. In my early twenties, I shared several apartments near the Tree of Life Synagogue. I could walk to work on Murray Avenue, back in my retail days. As I shopped at the local markets, I noticed numbers tattooed on people’s arms. At first, I didn’t understand, but I soon realized these were first-generation survivors of the Holocaust, to me the worst period in recent human history. I was invited to a Jewish wedding reception in Squirrel Hill, where praise and thanks, tears and clapping abundantly poured out because this extended family “had survived.” This was not normal, something that I was not familiar with — sheer survival in the midst of extreme evil.

The Jewish community in this area, as other ethnic communities in Pittsburgh, while tightly woven together, talking about tremendous suffering, grateful to be alive, to have children and grandchildren, could still laugh and joke, be successful and stuff you with more food.

As December would approach, the stores and restaurants in Squirrel Hill and other neighboring towns displayed both a small Christmas tree and Menorah side by side in their windows — it was natural. I remember a giant Menorah on the grounds of one of the Temples that I passed regularly, glowing in the darkness and I anticipated the glow “growing” during eight days, night after night. Pittsburgh embraces its diversity and ethnicity more than any place I’ve ever lived. There is even a large parade each year in this area celebrating The Festival of Lights, walking and spanning multiple communities, encouraging everyone to take part.

I asked my husband why — why?! Nothing like this ever happened in all the years I lived there in any town. He said “today people are not satisfied to privately hate. They want everyone to know it, spewing vileness on social media, threatening people in social settings, and some even transferring to violence, as we saw here.”

I couldn’t sleep last night. Did you ever try to “unthink” something, but your body takes control anyway? The tears kept spilling out, even though I tried to get back to sleep, not to think. I just had to let the tears empty out. I know evil can’t be explained or reasoned except in spiritual terms – it’s not about guns, money, social status or politics, nor will those things ever explain away evil. Cultural issues and the concerns of different generations ebb and flow, but pure evil remains the same. It starts with one or more of the seven deadly sins. It always prays on the innocent because it’s weak and cowardly. Yet evil shudders, and runs from holiness. It cannot extinguish its Light.

Coincidentally, I received a complimentary copy of Conde Nast Traveler 2018 Reader’s Choice Awards, Nov. 2018 issue. This evening, I read an article in it called “Sometimes Words Are Not Enough: How do you teach a child, asks Peggy Orenstein, about the existence of pure evil?” She did not pass along much about her Jewish family history to her 14-year-old daughter Daisy, but found herself in Poland with her Japanese husband who was filming a documentary. She, a mostly secular Jew, decided to take her daughter to the concentration camps of Poland.

She says, “I’ve struggled with how to tell this child I love, whom I want to protect from pain and harm, about the existence of pure evil. There’s no real right moment to mention the millions systematically murdered, or had we been there, we would have been among them. It feels like willfully robbing her of her innocence.”

The story has a different outcome than you think, and I encourage you to read it because her story contains an answer to this diabolical insanity that we are witnessing today. One answer is that history repeats if we do not learn from it. Count on it. Also, faith is the companion of reason, but reason alone won’t sustain us. To not pass our Judeo-Christian faith, the grounding stabilizer of Western civilization to the next generations, will leave them with no knowledge of the tools to not only battle but withstand spiritual persecution.

It’s no coincidence that evil attacked a place called “The Tree of Life.” Look it up. It is part of the original battle between good and evil — and evil is still trying to take it out.

Lastly, the wounded were rushed to nearby Mercy Hospital, where I was born. Where do you rush the spiritually wounded? The same place — the nearest church or synagogue where Mercy abounds. Nothing will extinguish the Light.

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There are 11 comments.

  1. Thatcher

    Beautiful post, thank you.

    • #1
    • October 28, 2018 at 6:18 pm
    • 4 likes
  2. Member

    FSC, Pittsburgh is a special place. I have known people that have attended that synagogue. The massacre is deeply troubling. Your post was beautiful. I am not trying to make light of the Squirrel Hill incident but this or something worse happens every weekend in Chicago. This weekend it was 5 killed 34 wounded. I have no answer but to pray for all.

    • #2
    • October 28, 2018 at 6:52 pm
    • 6 likes
  3. Member

    Thank you for the post and the thoughts, FSC. I lived in adjacent Shadyside during my graduate school years, but spent a lot of time in Squirrel Hill because the shopping and the services were more affordable. I don’t remember noticing Holocaust survivors, but I do remember Russian Jewish immigrants (this was the 80s), including my barber. He was a terrible barber, but he was cheap. He once talked about having to spend time in Siberia with the terrible cold and not much to wear. That little bit of information instilled a little bit of loyalty in me.

    One day, with the smell of alcohol on his breath, he insisted on styling my hair…because he was one of the best. I am pretty easy-going, but the results were not good, and I let him know. He was incensed with my disapproval, but he made adjustments. Hair grows back, and I returned on a regular basis without further incident.

    I just don’t understand the recurrent anti-Semitic theme throughout history. There really is evil. 

    • #3
    • October 28, 2018 at 10:46 pm
    • 3 likes
  4. Contributor

    Thank you, FSC. This is a beautiful tribute, personal and intimate.

    • #4
    • October 29, 2018 at 5:42 am
    • 2 likes
  5. Member
    Front Seat Cat Post author

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Thank you, FSC. This is a beautiful tribute, personal and intimate.

    Thanks Susan and everyone – just cannot believe what this world has become – 

    • #5
    • October 29, 2018 at 8:03 am
    • 2 likes
  6. Member
    Front Seat Cat Post author

    Saxonburg (View Comment):

    Thank you for the post and the thoughts, FSC. I lived in adjacent Shadyside during my graduate school years, but spent a lot of time in Squirrel Hill because the shopping and the services were more affordable. I don’t remember noticing Holocaust survivors, but I do remember Russian Jewish immigrants (this was the 80s), including my barber. He was a terrible barber, but he was cheap. He once talked about having to spend time in Siberia with the terrible cold and not much to wear. That little bit of information instilled a little bit of loyalty in me.

    One day, with the smell of alcohol on his breath, he insisted on styling my hair…because he was one of the best. I am pretty easy-going, but the results were not good, and I let him know. He was incensed with my disapproval, but he made adjustments. Hair grows back, and I returned on a regular basis without further incident.

    I just don’t understand the recurrent anti-Semitic theme throughout history. There really is evil.

    That’s a bit of a funny story in the middle of a nightmare – I think I remember getting good haircuts – I don’t understand it either – why antisemitism in this day and age?

    • #6
    • October 29, 2018 at 8:05 am
    • 1 like
  7. Moderator
    She

    PHCheese (View Comment):
    FSC, Pittsburgh is a special place.

    I have never felt that more acutely than I did after the crash of USAir flight 427 which occurred (I find when checking Wikipedia) on September 8, 1994. Lord. 24 years ago. Perhaps I have, indeed, lived too long.

    An hour or two after it happened, and while I was watching the news, some NewsWorm (TM) with saliva drooling, nailed a local and wanted to get some sort of emotive reaction which would play well on the national news scene.

    The Pittsburgher in her sights responded that the tragedy was so dire, and the implications so sad, that the only thing to be done was to pray for the victims, and not to engage in pointless speculation and unproductive angst.

    I’ve never, ever, forgotten that moment.

    Pittsburghers are, indeed, special.

    • #7
    • October 29, 2018 at 10:06 am
    • 5 likes
  8. Member

    This appalling event has spawned far too much horrible commentary. It’s such a relief to have the opportunity to read such a reflective and sincere post. Thank you. 

    • #8
    • October 29, 2018 at 2:43 pm
    • 1 like
  9. Member
    Front Seat Cat Post author

    She (View Comment):

    PHCheese (View Comment):
    FSC, Pittsburgh is a special place.

    I have never felt that more acutely than I did after the crash of USAir flight 427 which occurred (I find when checking Wikipedia) on September 8, 1994. Lord. 24 years ago. Perhaps I have, indeed, lived too long.

    An hour or two after it happened, and while I was watching the news, some NewsWorm (TM) with saliva drooling, nailed a local and wanted to get some sort of emotive reaction which would play well on the national news scene.

    The Pittsburgher in her sights responded that the tragedy was so dire, and the implications so sad, that the only thing to be done was to pray for the victims, and not to engage in pointless speculation and unproductive angst.

    I’ve never, ever, forgotten that moment.

    Pittsburghers are, indeed, special.

    I’ll tell you something – as I watched the early news story unfolded with not much info on Fox, I turned to CNN for a different perspective – the coverage was as follows:

    A mike was shoved into the face of President Trump – he was on a tarmac somewhere and couldn’t hear the question – finally the person yelled “gun control – guns, what do you have to say about in light of the Pittsburgh shooting??” Then the station suddenly switched to the president’s comments from the tarmac – the female news anchor asked the FBI person “does the president’s comments add a positive or a detrimental aspect to the investigation?” The FBI person answered that his comments have no bearing at this point on the investigation – I was outraged – I said what the hell?? It was unfolding and this is what they are reporting – at that point I was so upset, I switched the TV off. This is where we are – even in a horrific setting, the opening news is trying to find fault with Trump – unreal……………

    • #9
    • October 29, 2018 at 4:06 pm
    • 2 likes
  10. Member

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    PHCheese (View Comment):
    FSC, Pittsburgh is a special place.

    I have never felt that more acutely than I did after the crash of USAir flight 427 which occurred (I find when checking Wikipedia) on September 8, 1994. Lord. 24 years ago. Perhaps I have, indeed, lived too long.

    An hour or two after it happened, and while I was watching the news, some NewsWorm (TM) with saliva drooling, nailed a local and wanted to get some sort of emotive reaction which would play well on the national news scene.

    The Pittsburgher in her sights responded that the tragedy was so dire, and the implications so sad, that the only thing to be done was to pray for the victims, and not to engage in pointless speculation and unproductive angst.

    I’ve never, ever, forgotten that moment.

    Pittsburghers are, indeed, special.

    I’ll tell you something – as I watched the early news story unfolded with not much info on Fox, I turned to CNN for a different perspective – the coverage was as follows:

    A mike was shoved into the face of President Trump – he was on a tarmac somewhere and couldn’t hear the question – finally the person yelled “gun control – guns, what do you have to say about in light of the Pittsburgh shooting??” Then the station suddenly switched to the president’s comments from the tarmac – the female news anchor asked the FBI person “does the president’s comments add a positive or a detrimental aspect to the investigation?” The FBI person answered that his comments have no bearing at this point on the investigation – I was outraged – I said what the hell?? It was unfolding and this is what they are reporting – at that point I was so upset, I switched the TV off. This is where we are – even in a horrific setting, the opening news is trying to find fault with Trump – unreal……………

    Some years back I vowed never to ever, ever vote for a Democrat. Last year I vowed never ever to watch CNN again.

    • #10
    • October 29, 2018 at 6:26 pm
    • 1 like
  11. Listener

    Great post. I lived in Wilkinsburg but went to grade school in Squirrel Hill because my mom worked there an high school in Oakland. I spent a ton of time walking up Murray Ave and just like the author loved the mix of people. Mineo’s Pizza and Bagel Land were some of my favorite cheap eats places. It is very sad but it’s a great community so I know they will get through it.

    • #11
    • October 30, 2018 at 7:23 am
    • 2 likes