NOVEMBER 1, 2018 – When I got the news of the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I was standing in the boys department of a Target store in Framingham. My phone started to blow up with texts from family and friends. We reached everyone quickly, except for my mom. We didn’t think she was at the synagogue, where she was a member until recently. But she’s usually in Squirrel Hill. And she wasn’t responding. I’ll never forget standing there, hunched over my cart, staring at my phone and wondering if this is how my mother’s life ends.
I kept staring at my phone for the next dozen hours, constantly refreshing my social media feeds for signs of whose parents or grandparents or children may have been lost. In the meantime, my mom emerged from her Zumba class to a flurry of texts and anxiety. Later, she walked “up street” the five blocks from her home to the epicenter of the neighborhood, the intersection of Forbes and Murray Avenues. There she was met by what appeared to be thousands of others to participate in an impromptu Havdalah vigil lead by students of my alma mater Taylor Allderdice High School. My high school friends texted into the night until we discovered that the father of the girl I used to sit behind in homeroom was among the murdered.
Tree of Life Synagogue is situated in the heart of Squirrel Hill, the leafy urban residential neighborhood of Pittsburgh where I was raised. I grew up on Beeler Street, less than a mile away from Tree of Life, in the shadow of Carnegie Mellon University. While the neighbors on our block alone spanned many races and faiths, Squirrel Hill was (and is) a uniquely Jewish enclave. Filled with large big brick homes and public parks, its walkable business district mixes kosher eateries, independent shops, and synagogues alongside other ethnic groceries, family restaurants and churches.
My childhood was a feast of Jewish flavors, styles, and touchpoints. Before celebrating our b’not mitzvah at the Conservative Temple Beth Shalom in 1989, my twin sister and I attended public school with many Jews, refuseniks and Israelis, while also slipping in two years of elementary school at the Orthodox day school Hillel Academy. In between summers at J&R Day Camp and Emma Kaufmann Camp, our Jewish social lives were full with weekends at the JCC and activities related to our B’nai B’rith youth group. Rather than bullying us, our gentile friends quite openly wished for their own bar mitzvahs and JCC memberships.
That intersection of Forbes and Murray is as familiar to me as my grandmother’s kitchen. As teens, we would spend the afternoons “schmying” there, also known as taking loitering strolls along those two streets with friends, interrupted by stops along the way at Trifles for a bag of bulk candy, or National Record Mart for a tape. I can remember stopping in the Newstand for a cold drink and the latest Seventeen magazine. And always to Mineo’s for a slice of pizza (hold the pepperoni) and a carton of Turner’s ice tea.
Squirrel Hill was my whole world. I couldn’t tell you the names of other townships in western Pennsylvania if you paid me. I knew the adjacent neighborhoods of Oakland and Greenfield. Occasionally a trip to the Monroeville Mall. That’s it.
But that neighborhood launched me. I’m forever grateful to Squirrel Hill for giving me a foundation of Jewish pride and literacy that has carried me through a lifetime of exploration, inquiry, and professional pursuits within the Jewish world and beyond.
In this America, which grants permission to hate, a disregard for the truth and ample access to the tools of war, the past few years have been like watching a train wreck in slow motion, an out of control railcar careening against civil liberties, democratic norms, people of color, immigrants, the LGBT community and other minorities. Barreling onward, it now leaves Squirrel Hill and my heart among its carnage. But the train doesn’t stop, and we can only guess where it will crash next.
Dana Gitell lives in Natick. In 2013, she coined the term Thanksgivukkah as an opportunity to give thanks for the Jewish American experience and her childhood in Pittsburgh, in particular. She misses the America of 2013 very much.