On the morning of October 27, 2018, an anti-Semitic white supremacist armed with a semi-automatic weapon entered the Tree of Life synagogue in the Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood during Shabbat services. He killed 11 Jews (members of the three congregations housed in the building) and injured six people, including four police officers.
The tragic event — the deadliest attack in history on the American Jewish community — left a profound mark on people all over the US and around the world. The deep shock and sorrow felt by the local Pittsburgh community is still being processed.
A new anthology of essays titled, “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy,” allows local writers to engage with their sorrow, and to share their personal perspectives on how the shooting affected them, their families, friends and neighbors. It will be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press on October 27, the second anniversary of the shooting.
Individual Pittsburghers had published pieces on the tragedy, and national and international media had covered the story as outsiders looking in. However, Kissileff and Lidji believed there was a clear need for a collection of essays by members of the local community.
“We thought that if we had an anthology, everybody would be responsible for their little piece, but all together it would tell a larger story from an interior perspective. It’s not definitive by any means, but it is bigger than any one perspective. You get a story between the stories,” Lidji said.
Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center, and Kissileff, a journalist, author and university educator, invited individuals from their personal and professional networks from the historically Jewish Squirrel Hill community and other parts of the city to participate. Ultimately, 23 writers — including the editors — contributed essays to the 250-page anthology.
“We prioritized people who knew how to process events in writing —academics, journalists, rabbis, poets, and so on,” Kissileff.
At the same time, the editors deliberately included diversity in terms of religion (Jews and non-Jews), race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and political outlook. There are individuals who are lifelong Squirrel Hill residents, as well as those who are newcomers to Pittsburgh. The Jewish writers range along the ritual observance spectrum from secular all the way to Orthodox.
Kissileff and Lidji made sure to include two writers from each of the three congregations targeted in the shooting: Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha, Dor Hadash, and New Light. And because of the close knit nature of the community, each of the 11 martyrs (as they are referred to by many of the writers) ended up mentioned in at least one of the essays in the anthology.
The editors instructed contributors to write freely from a personal perspective, and generously gave them a 3,000-5,000 word count.
“We told the writers not to worry about the length, to write the piece they were inclined to write, and we would figure out how to make it work,” Lidji said.
The result is a very moving, if sometimes emotionally challenging, flow of essays arranged into three sections. The first, titled “Here is Squirrel Hill,” contains reflections on being from the neighborhood, and on responding to the shooting from that particular perspective.
This section includes an essay by history professor Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, who has worked on retrieving and preserving the objects, notes and acts offered in memorial of the victims. It also includes an excellent piece by Lidji titled “Processing” about his role as the archivist in charge of making order of the 189 boxes of things stacked on the shelves at his workplace, plus the 18.45 gigabytes of digital materials and another 146.9 gigabytes of online materials stored on servers and hard drives.
Lidji writes, “I have no special insight into why this attack happened, or why it happened here. I don’t know what would have prevented it from happening here or what would prevent it from happening again somewhere else. I don’t understand the depth of my sorrow or the vast sorrow of others.”
However, he does know how to describe things and situate them among other things in an archive, “so that nothing is every lost or overlooked, so that others can make meaning from it all.”
The second part, “Finding the Vessels,” takes its name from the title of a series of sermons contributed by Rabbi Daniel Yolkut. The essays here deal with ways of personally processing and coping with the tragedy, from turning to existing Jewish mourning rituals, to creating new liturgy, to dancing the Argentinian tango.
Kissileff contributed a piece to this section, in which she reflects — among other things — on the unfairness and randomness as to why her family is still intact while others are not.
Finally, the third section, “You Will Get Through This,” focuses on choosing life, as the Jewish tradition commands.
“It’s about moving forward, not moving on. I think it is really important to talk about the difficulty of trauma and to say that you don’t have to get over it,” Kissileff emphasized.
You don’t have to be at a certain level of closeness. Trauma has a ripple effect
She said she hoped that people will take their mental health seriously. For some, writing may help. For others, there will be different ways to deal with the grief.
“Whatever your response is, it is valid. You don’t have to be at a certain level of closeness. Trauma has a ripple effect. You need to take care of yourself, Kissileff said.
As a corollary, she said that people should also strengthen themselves, and for those inclined, it can be through getting closer to Judaism.
“If the shooter’s goals was to weaken our feelings about Judaism and to weaken Jews, I want to do everything we can to strengthen it. I hope the anthology is part of that,” Kissileff said.
As it turned out, most of the writers adhered to the personal and shied away from expressing explicit political views. And those that were expressed were not couched in particularly strong terms.
Lidji doesn’t see any significance to the book’s publication just days before the 2020 presidential election.
“Regardless of who the president was before or will be after, the pain is the pain. It may be increased or decreased for some people based on their viewpoints and what they are hearing from their political leaders. But at the end of the day there are some things that are bigger than that,” he said.
Kissileff does see a political angle, in that she hopes the anthology will help move the needle on gun reform. She spoke about this on the first Shabbat following the attack.
“Our theology is that God gives people free will and human beings decide to do evil. But our job is that human beings who choose to do evil do not have access to assault rifles,” Kissileff said to huge applause.
Both editors agree that the tragedy of October 27, 2018, marks a possibly pivotal moment in American Jewish life.
The violence against Jews and blatant anti-Semitic rhetoric online “really overturns every narrative I thought I had. It changes my whole relationship with America,” Kissileff said.
Lidji wonders how the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting will eventually be viewed through the lens of history, and how will this book — an artifact of early 21st century America — be looked at with a great distance.
“In October 2020, this book is a raw personal expression of people’s experiences. Some of that will remain, but it will also be colored by how this story — for lack of a better word — turned out,” Lidji said.
“The horrifying thing is that we in American just don’t know what that story is. We are all praying that this is a spasm and that it reverts to what we naïvely thought of as normal. But there is this horrifying alternative that no one but God can know,” he said.
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