One of the most striking features of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood is the seamlessness of its Jewishness. On two blocks of the main drag, one finds a Starbucks, a handful of Chinese restaurants, a library, and a smattering of local businesses—standard fare. But there is also a mikveh, a Jewish day school, two synagogues, and a fully kosher Dunkin’ Donuts (one of just 13 outside of the New York City area). There are Jews in black hats, Jews in kippahs, Zionist Jews, Bend the Arc Jews, and at least one self-identified Jewish “priestess.” The institutions of ancient, religious Judaism stand side by side with the trappings of the modern, liberal Jew.
“In other American cities with a sizable Jewish population, the Orthodox would likely have their own enclave, the secular Jews would be scattered around town, and most of the Jews, certainly the non-Orthodox ones, would have gone to one suburb or another,” the journalist Mark Oppenheimer writes. “Such a Jewish community exists nowhere else in the United States.”
This neighborhood and its residents are the focus of Oppenheimer’s new book, the aptly titled Squirrel Hill. In a series of vignettes, the Tablet editor and Yale lecturer tells the story of the 2018 shooting at Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life Synagogue, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history. Through his meticulous reporting, Oppenheimer documents how the shooting affected this uniquely Jewish community, forcing Pittsburgh’s Jews to really consider what it means to be Jewish. In so doing, Oppenheimer invites his readers to do the same.
The book begins with the attack itself, as Oppenheimer reconstructs that day in a few moving chapters. His focus is primarily on the people inside, the handful who decided to turn up for an otherwise unremarkable Shabbat morning at one of the three congregations (Tree of Life–Or L’Simcha, Dor Hadash, and New Light) that gathered under the one roof.
That group was exactly the sort you would expect to find at services on a given Saturday: the “mix of the most committed Jews and the Jews with no place else to go, the widowed or disabled or simply lonely, who wake up early and can’t wait to see other people.” Tree of Life and New Light are Conservative synagogues, while Dor Hadash is affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement—both denominations in demographic decline. If the shooter had targeted one of Squirrel Hill’s major Orthodox synagogues, Oppenheimer notes, he could have killed hundreds.
Part of what made the Tree of Life shooting shocking was that it showed that anti-Semitism was still a mortal danger, even in America. In a vibrantly Jewish neighborhood, in the country (besides Israel) most unequivocally welcoming to Jews, 11 people could still be murdered simply because they were Jewish. But that the attack happened at a once-thriving, now-shrinking synagogue raises an opposite point: Many people did not die that weekend precisely because they were not the sort of person to show up to weekly services. It forces readers to ponder what it means that the people most committed to Jewish practice were also, thereby, the people most at risk of anti-Semitic violence. How do we balance a desire to be fully Jewish against the hostility that engenders? Is it possible to be both fully Jewish and fully American?
The rest of Squirrel Hill, as it spirals out from the shooting to its effects on the greater community, depicts a community grappling with this and other questions of Jewish identity. How should Jews deal with death? What are our political obligations in life? What are our obligations to our personal community, versus those to everyone else? And at the core of it: If anti-Semitism will never go away, why choose to be Jewish?
The Tree of Life shooting quickly became, as so many tragedies unfortunately now do, a media and political spectacle. Squirrel Hill is not a polemic, but Oppenheimer dutifully documents the debates over gun control and white nationalism that sprang up in the shooting’s wake, particularly after then-president Donald Trump decided to pay a visit to Pittsburgh, prompting a protest and social-media outrage.
But even there, the focus is not so much the policy issues as how the Jewish community thinks about them. On the one hand, it can be easy to feel that being Jewish requires being a Democrat, that in some conversations tikkun olam is just a shorter way to say “Black Lives Matter.” At the same time, three in four Orthodox Jews are Republicans, and most supported Trump. When Oppenheimer interviews members of Pittsburgh’s Bend the Arc affiliate, he also takes time to talk to the Orthodox woman who spent the day of the protest heckling participants. The point is not to approximate neutrality, but to ensure a complete picture of Squirrel Hill’s diversity.
Oppenheimer also looks outside Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, documenting the challenges of “tragedy tourism” as the well-intentioned flooded the city after the shooting. And he uses his coverage of Taylor Allderdice, Squirrel Hill’s main public high school, to probe the feelings of its black students, many of whom express resentment that the death of Jews garners more attention than the death of blacks.
After those on the shooting itself, Squirrel Hill’s most stirring chapters cover the process of burying the 11 victims. Oppenheimer details how one of the local Orthodox rabbis organized a group to keep watch over the bodies until they were released by the FBI, praying psalms through the night until the dead could be returned to the community. From there, many were cared for by Pittsburgh’s liberal Chevra Kadisha (a Jewish burial society), which oversaw the ritual washing of bodies that precedes a funeral. Then, finally, the funerals, where one local Reform Rabbi found himself drawn, as by magnetism, to walk alongside Orthodox funeral processors who had come to walk alongside the hearse, the two communities joined together in mourning.
SQUIRREL HILL is a book for Jews (and Gentiles) everywhere, but it is particularly a book for those of us who grew up Jewish in Pittsburgh. (The house where I grew up is a 15-minute walk from Tree of Life, although we were members of the larger Reform synagogue, Temple Sinai.) Fellow residents, both former and current, will recognize many of the places and names; at one point in the book I paused, read aloud a passage Oppenheimer transcribed from a Jewish journalist’s recounting of her work with the city’s liberal Chevra Kadisha, and then told my wife that I had had a crush on said writer for most of elementary school.
In that regard, Squirrel Hill showed me how unusual the neighborhood was as a place to grow up. Being raised Jewish in Pittsburgh is a bit like how Oppenheimer’s podcast co-host Liel Leibovitz recently described being Jewish in Israel: “You are Jewish by osmosis. You just open the window and breathe in a lot of Jew.” It offers what Oppenheimer describes as “an idyllic Jewish life in a modern urban shtetl”—so if the dream of being fully Jewish and fully American is possible anywhere, it’s there.
But it is all too easy—in Squirrel Hill, and in modern liberal Jewish life—for Jewish identity to stop being a choice, for it to become something that happens to us but to which we do not contribute. I grew up unselfconsciously Jewish because of the environment in which I lived. It was only after I left Squirrel Hill (and after I fell in love with a non-Jewish woman and spent years watching her work on conversion for her and our son) that I began to understand that for most American Jews, being Jewish is not something you “breathe in”—it’s something you choose, or don’t choose, every day.
The choice to be willfully, deliberately Jewish always means accepting the risks that go with it—of anti-Semitism that can be subtle and, in its violent expressions, unsubtle. A place like Squirrel Hill hints at a world in which being Jewish is easy and free from fear, but the Tree of Life shooting shows that even there it is not.
That’s why the best stories in Squirrel Hill are those of people who, face-to-face with the scourge of anti-Semitism, chose to become more Jewish, rather than less. There’s Lynn Hyde, married to a Jewish man but who had always stopped short of converting—until she realized that if the shooter had entered the synagogue where she and her husband were praying, he wouldn’t have bothered to ask if she wasn’t Jewish before shooting her. Or Robert Zacharias, the computer artist who responded to the shooting by starting to wear a kippah everywhere he goes and grappling with all the discomfort that being publicly and visibly Jewish brings. Even Ron Symons, the Reform rabbi who walked with his Orthodox brothers during the funeral procession, captures this: In mourning another Jew, we are all Jewish together.
These stories and others are the closest thing Squirrel Hill offers as an answer to the question it poses. To be Jewish has always meant to be Jewish after tragedy—after the fall of the Temple, after the exile, after the Holocaust—and therefore through overcoming it. That choice to overcome, to be Jewish over and against the desires of violent anti-Semites, is the way Jews continue to preserve and build places like Squirrel Hill.
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