The Tree of Life in the City of Steel

Three weeks ago, a man drove into my neighborhood, stormed into a synagogue, murdered eleven people, and shot and wounded several others.

Well, that’s old news.  Why I am I still talking about it now, after there’s already been a mass shooting of twelve people elsewhere in America?

Because NONE OF THIS IS NORMAL, none of this should be happening!  Each one of the twelve in Thousand Oaks was a unique human being with a unique role in Earth’s story who was loved by others and was ripped out of life’s fabric just as unfairly as each one of the eleven in Pittsburgh, each one of the two in Kentucky, each one from all the staggeringly stupidly many mass murders that are becoming so common, we can’t name them all from memory anymore, not even all of this year’s–THIS CANNOT BE NORMAL!  We can’t just whirl it around the news cycle and let it slide down the memory hole.

Because these eleven people were my neighbors, that makes this mass shooting different for me.  I keep thinking of the beginning of this Emily Dickinson poem:

The last Night that She lived
It was a Common Night
Except the Dying—this to Us
Made Nature different.

There’s a feeling hanging over Squirrel Hill, a cloud of tears slowly drifting and hovering over so many sparkles of love and kindness and clarity, people focusing on the little things that make our enmeshed lives so worthwhile.  Nature is different.  In our shock and sadness, we’re seeing more clearly what we have here.

Squirrel Hill is not just anywhere in America.  This is a real neighborhood, where businesses open off one side of the sidewalk and buses go by on the other and people walk down the middle–college students and old people and kids on their own, Jews and Chinese people and extremely geeky people and everyone else–and we can walk to the post office and the library and the playground and so many stores and restaurants.  Almost every time I go out, I see someone I know or at least recognize.

Joyce Fienberg.
Richard Gottfried.
Rose Mallinger.
Jerry Rabinowitz.
Cecil Rosenthal.
David Rosenthal.
Bernice Simon.
Sylvan Simon.
Daniel Stein.
Melvin Wax.
Irving Younger.

Those are the names of my neighbors who were murdered in the Tree of Life synagogue.  Looking at
their photos, I realized I’d seen them around—in the grocery store, on the bus, in the post office, on the sidewalk, in the park.

All of them were older than I am. Some people have said they’re glad no children were killed, and I know what they mean, but . . . just because people are older doesn’t mean they are done living, and the longer you’ve been around, the more people loved you, the more you were one of the people in our neighborhood that we meet each day—and I know that’s Sesame Street phrasing rather than Mister Rogers [Squirrel Hill is where Fred Rogers lived in real life], but let’s just pull out all the reminders of the lessons we learned as little children about loving our neighbors and being part of the community and using our words and being kind to others.  Squirrel Hill has always been a place where those ideas are alive and well and evident in our daily life.  I want to thank those eleven people for being part of it.

This is a great description of our neighborhood.  I am relieved to see people out and about, doing the usual things, instead of acting like this is a scary place now.  One bad guy from the suburbs cannot make this a dangerous neighborhood.  Our police did a wonderful job of capturing him quickly, and a Jewish nurse who helped to heal his injuries reminds us all, “The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings.”

On the Tuesday after the killings, I was one of the thousands who marched in peaceful protest of Donald Trump’s visit to Tree of Life.  Why?  Because his response to the massacre of innocent Americans at worship was that they ought to have had an armed guard! As if we should all just take for granted that everyday life in America puts us in mortal danger every moment!  As if anyone unlocking the doors of their building to welcome the general public to join them in worship is just asking to get shot!  As if our police are useless, and we should all have our own police!  Trump doesn’t understand how crime works or care about facts.  He just wants us to be afraid.

Especially, he wants us to be afraid of dark-skinned people, especially immigrants.  I’m aware that this particular killer (whose hatred for Jews was intensified by anger about a Jewish program that helps immigrants) wasn’t a big fan of Trump, but that fear of immigrants is something they have in common.  Trump would like us to believe that this American-born white guy slaughtering Americans is just a hazard that better people would’ve dodged, letting the shooter off the hook by saying somebody should’ve stopped him.

No, this whole thing is one guy’s fault, one guy who decided that he was going to walk into a beautiful space where people were contemplating a reminder of the glory of Creation and start killing people because he was mad that they wanted to share and be nice.  He could stop if he wanted to, he could stop if he wished, he could stop stop stop any time, but he didn’t.  That’s his fault.  It’s not because the Jews weren’t prepared to kill him first.

Anyway, I was there in the crowd, the one Trump said was very small, but of course he couldn’t see most of it because road blocks prevented us from getting within a block of him.  It was, in fact, HUUUUGE, something like five thousand people.

We sang this song over and over again.  At first I thought about its meaning, about my responsibility to use my strengths for peace and seek God’s will.  Then it started to remind me of repetitive songs from my own religion . . . Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray, watch and pray. . . .  I remembered to pray for Robert Bowers as I used to pray for Osama bin Laden: Lord, melt his heart with love, turn him around, guide him to repent. . . .

It was a beautiful autumn day, a beautiful day in my neighborhood, a time to walk together and sing and remember how many good people are in the world.

The one moment I didn’t like was when Trump’s motorcade arrived and the crowd booed.  Booing is bullying.  I felt it was the wrong thing to do–but I hated how much I wanted to do it!!

Appropriate gestures were turning our backs and taking a knee.  (Some news reports said protesters “sat down in the middle of the street,” but that is not what happened where I was.  The people at the front turned their backs on Trump, and that gesture spread, and then as I was facing the back of the crowd, someone ahead of me took a knee, and many realized how appropriate that was–black lives matter; gun violence victims’ lives matter; Jewish lives matter–and a big section of us went down.)

We did the kriah, tearing a black ribbon, in this case construction paper, to symbolize tearing our clothes in mourning.  We held the torn pieces up against the blue sky for a moment of silence.  We were a big crowd with eleven people missing.

Then the song again, that same song we’d been singing for blocks so that it had inevitably taken on a droning tone.  Now it was in a much more upbeat tempo, with drums, and it was just . . . just such a clear reminder of everything we humans share, music and spirituality and motivation and finding hope.

Next day was a scarier Halloween than any of us wanted: Our neighborhood K-8 school, which Nicholas attends, was locked down because of an anonymous call saying a student had a gun.  Just a prank, apparently.  NOT FUNNY.  But I’m glad everyone’s safe and glad that our school district has sensible policies.  But my kid is going to be walking through a metal detector every day now, and that sucks.

Our neighborhood is strong and resilient, but we are part of America, and America has a sick relationship with guns.  It needs to change, and laws alone won’t change it.  We need to become a society in which nobody feels that gunning down strangers is a thing that he can do.  Why is that so difficult?!

I don’t know all the secrets for achieving a more peaceful society.  But I know that fear and guns and walls are part of the problem, not part of the solution.  That guy from the suburbs drove right into Squirrel Hill; it isn’t a gated community.  He walked right into Tree of Life; it was open because people were welcome there.  I want us to go on welcoming everyone, whether they come from another country or another state or another neighborhood.  I wish everyone could live here!

Well, actually, everyone is trying to live here, and that’s made real estate prices so high that we risk losing diversity.  So what I really want is more places like Squirrel Hill, more places where you can walk around and know your neighbors and be yourself, whoever you are.  I want that feeling to spread all across America so that we all feel at home and love our neighbors and nobody feels like killing.

6 thoughts on “The Tree of Life in the City of Steel

  1. Well said, ‘Becca. I thought of you when this happened, and wondered if you lived in the same neighbourhood. It’s so wrong, that this happened, and that it keeps happening. Sending you a hug.

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