By Beth Kisseleff, co-editor, Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy
Objects tell stories. That is one reason we go to museums, to see objects connected to a particular historical event or emblematic of some now-archaic aspect of our society.
To tell about the Tree of Life shooting, the worst antisemitic shooting on American soil that took place only two years ago on October 27, 2018, one might want to display one of the bullet-marked prayer books salvaged by the hevra kadisha during their grueling work at the site described by a 22 year FBI veteran as the “most horrific crime scene” he had ever seen.
But that wouldn’t be the only way to tell the story.
There were also many objects left after the shooting by individuals and groups who wanted to show their support and give love and strength to the three affected synagogues (Tree of Life, New Light Congregation, and Dor Hadash) and to the Jewish community as a whole.
The story of those objects is one of twenty-four essays in the anthology of local Pittsburgh writers reflecting on the shooting that I co-edited with Eric Lidji, the director of the Jewish archives at our local history center. The ongoing tale of what happened at Tree of Life is not only in what the shooter did, but how others reacted, and how local people grieved, coped and healed.
The national news media covered the story in the days and even weeks after it happened. But two years later and during an international coronavirus pandemic, those affected by the event are still reeling from the shock of such hate in their neighborhood. What does it mean to continue to pray and observe the Sabbath if that makes you and your family targets? How do people who have lost family members to violence cope – especially if they are also members of Tree of Life? Can Argentinian tango, participating in protests, studying Torah, or writing poetry help one cope with a life altering event? What about understanding the development of the history of Jewish mourning practices while also mourning a father who died at an untimely young age?
These are some of the objects found within the anthology, the goal of which was to enable local writers the opportunity to tell their stories from a more personal perspective and at a length that is not normally available to them. A non-Jewish religion writer reflects on the things he has covered, as well as visit to a summer camp for Jewish kids in Poland where he learns that deeds of love can effect atonement in the modern era, in the absence of a Temple. A Jewish journalist talks about how living not just within the eruv (traditional Sabbath boundary) that encircles Squirrel Hill, but a scant 400 feet from the site of these murders, reminds her of the many other poignant stories she has written about in her career.
We divided the anthology into three sections to broadly reflect the themes we felt most strongly in the pieces. The first section contains essays that describe the Squirrel Hill neighborhood and those in the city around it, the second section focuses on the tools people may use to process and come to terms with their grief, and the final section’s essays revolve around the ability of humans to get through difficult events.
May we keep the memories alive of those eleven killed al kiddush Hashem to sanctify God’s name, bound in the bonds of life as they are remembered by the living.