Dispatch from Squirrel Hill: Dread in a peaceful place
We knew it could happen here — any here, anywhere — when we learned that nine people were killed three years ago in the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. We knew it could happen here – any here, anywhere — when we learned that six were killed in the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City last year.
Now we know it can happen here, as anywhere, because it has.
Here, this weekend, is Squirrel Hill, home of a dozen synagogues and for more than a century and a half not only the spiritual center of Pittsburgh Judaism but also a vital landmark in the history of Jews in America, along with New York’s Lower East Side and Boston’s Blue Hill Avenue, one of the vital centers of Jewish identity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
And here — amid the kosher grocery and the kosher restaurant and the kosher-style deli, and where the knotted fringes of tzitzit are familiar features at the corners of the garments of the Orthodox who walk through the area just before sundown Friday evenings -- it didn’t require social media for the news of the shooting at the Tree of Life to spread.
The news was in the air, along with the shock and the sadness, the grief and the gruesome details, the worst of which were confirmed within hours.
You could hear it in the sirens that broke the stillness of the morning and shattered the serenity of the Saturday routines at the cleaners, at the shoe store, at the hotcake house. No need, of course, in a place like this to identify the name of the cleaners, the shoe store, the hotcake house. Everyone knows them, just as they know the names of almost everyone along Forbes Avenue at any time of the day.
And precisely because everyone knows everyone around here — the one immutable Squirrel Hill truth that is at once irritating and comforting -- the news that raced down the street as noon approached Saturday was about a rare stranger in this peaceful place: dread.
Dread that someone you knew was in morning prayers marking the beginning of a baby’s new life.
Dread that the police officers who sped to the scene — truly there were scores of them, almost as if it were a police funeral, for it was clear that soon there could be one — were in danger.
Dread, too, that our country, our city, our neighborhood, our lives have come to this, and that this has come home.
Before long the whole tragic scene was on television, and there was David Johnson, the WPXI anchor, on the sidewalk. He lives here, mere blocks away. On the scene, too, was Ken Rice, the KDKA anchor. He and his wife, Lauren, took their pre-marriage lessons just down the street.
Then there also was the Downtown businessman, a Squirrel Hill resident since he was three days old — everyone knows his name, too, though he won’t permit it to be used in this story — who was in the Five Points Bakery, hard by the synagogue. He was there to buy a morning muffin for his wife. But the line was too long so he headed back home, down Wilkins Avenue and toward Fifth, and this is what he saw:
‘’There were four, maybe six officers, and they rushed into the synagogue with guns. Then I saw the officers start to fire and back out and I saw what looked like gunfire from the synagogue. And I saw an officer holding his arm being escorted out. And the next thing I knew there were cops all over the place.’’
And the very next thing he did was call the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, because he knew I lived only three blocks away from the synagogue and he knew this was news, of the worst but most important kind.
And soon Rabbi James A. Gibson of Temple Sinai, the Reform synagogue that is nearly a neighbor of Tree of Life, was on the phone. ‘’We’re stunned that the peace of Shabbat was destroyed by murderous intent and act,’’ he said, the words spilling forth in a Niagara of disbelief unusual for a man of devout belief. ‘’We cannot comprehend what happened. It’s a tragedy for us all, and especially for those who are victims.’’
This was, to be sure, a 21st century event. Gunfire in a house of worship. Text messages flying at the speed of bullets. (Mine came from Saskatchewan and Alberta and Ontario, from a nephew at Yeshiva University in New York, and brothers and my sister from Boston’s North Shore and from neighbors the next street over.) And of course: Confusion, and then clarity, over how many dead, how many wounded.
And confusion, but no clarity, about what this means, and whether the toxic political and cultural environment caused this, or merely reflected it. But one thing had clarity. At a time of peril, in a period of media disruption, people turned to the much-maligned mainstream press to find out what happened, when they needed the news most, when it counted the most, when it didn’t matter whether you voted for Donald J. Trump or Hillary Rodham Clinton or what your definition of nationalism was.
Changes in demographics, increased intermarriage, and the growth of the suburbs have diluted the Jewish identity of Squirrel Hill somewhat, but it remains true, as Steven R. Weisman, author of Chosen Wars, the most recent history of Judaism in America, put it in a phone conversation only hours after the shooting, that ‘’the fabric of American Judaism is woven into Squirrel Hill.’’
Because this was our neighborhood, caught in the crossfire of the strains of the global village, and for once — sadly, so very sadly — the hurt was ours, and the victims were ours, and the need to heal is ours. For now it has happened here; for millions across this wounded nation, we are the focus of anguish and anger and solace, the it-can-happen-anywhere place of the moment. And we know, given the tempo of tragedy in these times that are ours, that the title won’t be ours for long.
In our grief — shared across all faiths — we need something to lean on, to steady us. We might reflect on the passage from Proverbs that lent its name to this place of tragedy, a reference to the metaphor describing Judaism’s most sacred text, the Torah, as a tree of life, or, in transliterated Hebrew, Etz hayyim:
It is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it; its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.