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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.