Oct 6, 2020
In New Anthology, Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the 2018 Tree of Life Tragedy
"It is something that affected all of us. It's really important to acknowledge that. It's important to allow people to acknowledge that," Beth Kissileff said about the Tree of Life tragedy. This spirit was part of the mission and driving force behind the anthology of writing that Kissileff and Eric Lidji collected and curated. 'Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy' (University of Pittsburgh Press) will be released on October 27th, the two year anniversary of the mass shooting in Squirrel Hill.
When Kissileff partnered up with Lidji, the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives at the Heinz History Center, she knew she wanted the book to be both local and inclusive.
"The circles of trauma, they are far reaching. It's a terrifying thing to have your community invaded. If it can happen in a synagogue, it can happen elsewhere," she said.
Lidji brings his unique perspective as an archivist to the project and his own essay about processing all of the documents, objects, totems and ephemera left behind, is revelatory.
"One of the things that I have found to be really profound in working with the archives is that the dynamics of local history are very different than national history. Local history is much more about the fact that it exists. Is there enough material there to be able to tell it? It doesn't need to alter our understanding of reality. It's simply a celebration of an individual or a family or a small organization," he said.
There is a need for understanding and conversation at the epicenter of the event, as Lidji further explained.
"One of the reasons we decided to do this was -- when something like this happens, there is a tension between the meaning of the event on a national and international level, and the meaning of the event to the people who are closest to it. It's not always in conflict, but it's not always unified either. It's actually never unified, even if it's not in conflict."
There are contributions from journalists Tony Norman, Andrew Goldstein, Peter Smith and from Ann Belser, founder of Print, and Toby Tabachnick, editor of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.
Free-lance writer and journalist, Molly Pascal is a member of Tree of Life, and her essay "Here is Squirrel Hill," leads off the collection, setting the tone as a very intimate one, as she moves the reader through the synagogue and the neighborhood from the time before the attack, to a year later.
In "I Read Somewhere That Pittsburgh Is Stronger Than Hate," Norman lends his ever-essential voice, examining what the shooting means in context of other shootings, how it reverberated throughout all the city neighborhoods, as well as what we might learn from it, how we can be a better city for all of our citizens.
The voices that animate this collection are varied and stunning. There is poetry from Arlene Weiner and an essay with photos by Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg which investigates the stories told by the items left behind -- flowers, candles and stars of David, a guitar, a pair of Chuck Taylors.
There is a blend of oral history, interview and sermon from Rabbi Daniel Yolkut of Congregation Poele Zedeck. Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light Congregation, one of the congregations which uses Tree of Life as their home, contributed Hebrew Poetry.
Kissileff's own essay is a search for joy and hope in the worst moments; she navigates the disorientation of trauma by leaning hard into a Torah reading in which a swarm of bees inhabit a carcass, creating sweetness inside a dead lion. Even during times of great tragedy and injustice, there can remain some sweetness to life.
"This idea -- the carcass won't go away, but it can be transformed. Other things can occupy that space. Even though the bones and the carcass are there, it's possible for new things to inhabit it as well. It was important for me, for my synagogue, for my congregation," she explained.
"We are trying to animate and enliven our synagogue. I don't want New Light just to be associated with this awful event. I want congregational life to be animated with sweetness, as well."
So many of the writers address what it feels like when this kind of violence and hatred explode in your neighborhood, in your city, in a place that you drive by or live in. Jane Bernstein, a writer who teaches at CMU and who drives past Tree of Life every day on her way to work (or did before the pandemic), writes about her own response. When she spoke with the Current about it, she said something that all Pittsburghers felt and continue to feel.
"It can feel really remote, even if it's just in another city. Suddenly, it's in your neighborhood. It becomes more possible."
A man walks into a synagogue loaded with weapons, with hate in his heart, and Nazi propaganda in his mind. He intends to do harm, to kill people and terrorize an entire community. He intends to bring the city and whole groups of people into a grim, endless night. Many contributors address this long hard night of the soul, and the response of the community, including Campbell Robertson, a New York Times national correspondent living in Pittsburgh.
"He talked about being at the shiva for Jerry Rabinowitz and somebody spoke about a midrash … When Adam and Eve were created, at the end of the first day, it was dark and they were terrified and they thought, is this the way it's always going to be? How are we going to cope in this new world of darkness? And then morning came, and then dawn came. It will always be morning again. I thought that was a really beautiful image," Kissileff said.
The collection balances on pivot points between remembrance and understanding, sounding both a call to action and a call to healing. Two years later and the event continues to reverberate.
"It is a reminder that even after places stop being in the news, emotional circumstances continue and they continue indefinitely," Lidji said.
This story originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Current on October 6, 2020