PITTSBURGH – They were the shots heard ‘round my neighborhood. The shots heard ‘round the country. The shots heard ‘round the Jewish world – indeed heard ‘round the entire world.
On an otherwise tranquil autumn Saturday morning before the coronavirus – people lining up at the bakery a few blocks away, others walking along Shady Avenue, still more shopping near the Squirrel Hill intersection of Forbes and Murray Avenues, for a century the center of Jewish life in Pittsburgh – a clutch of men and women were at prayer. In a tragic instant their pews in the Tree of Life synagogue became a crime scene – and a symbol.
A crime scene because there, in the sanctuary, 11 Jews were slaughtered in an onslaught of bullets. A symbol because the episode, the worst incidence of anti-Semitic violence in the history of the United States, stood as a tragic emblem of the way we live today:
In fear. In mourning. In sad reflection.
These shots rang out two years ago this month. So much has happened in those crowded 24 months: More mass shootings. A bitterly divided nation. A corrosive presidential campaign. A pandemic. Shutdowns and lockdowns. Tears and fears.
Two years ago we walked the streets without masks and, generally, without trepidation. But after October 27, those walks – I take mine right past Tree of Life at least four times a week – have taken on a new character, and possibly a new meaning. Wilkins Avenue, where the synagogue faces the world, has become a miniature portrait of America: Down the street the Five Points Bakery allows only two customers at a time into its tiny salesroom. Up the street the campus of Chatham University, usually bustling with students, has an eerie tranquility. Along the street there is a block-long display of art growing out of the Tree of Life shooting. The drawings and paintings are by students. Many of them are from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. There 17 people were killed, another 17 injured.
Over the past two years I repeatedly have been asked to write commemorative columns and memorial columns. These occur every time there is a mass shooting – as in the case of the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in April 2019 – when there is anti-Semitism involved. Every time, I call Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who was the officiant during the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. Every time, we take the phrase “Never again” and transmogrify it into “Yet again.”
Yet again. And so, as the new year 5781 began, I called him up again, to talk once again about the shots heard ‘round my neighborhood. This time he was not angry, nor especially sad. He seemed, instead, resigned.
Resigned to the way things are, in America, in the first quarter of the 21st century.
“I wish I could say that in the last two years we’ve seen an improvement in how one human being treated another human being,’’ he told me, the resignation screaming through the phone even though his voice was low, reflective. “Sadly I think that is not the case. Nonetheless I am clinging to the thought that humanity is good.”
What? An inadvertent paraphrase of Anne Frank – “I still believe that people are really good at heart,’’ from the diary of a young girl who would have been 91 years old now – from a man who witnessed the slaying of 11 of his congregants, in cold blood, in real time?
But there it was, plus this line: “I still believe that.’’
This is a time when beliefs are tested: beliefs in the endurance of the Constitution, beliefs in the essential justice of America, beliefs in the American way, the American dream, the American experiment. Belief “that people are really good at heart.’’
All that has been tested in the past two years. It has been tested anew in the past two months, as the gears of the presidential campaign began to turn, as the chimera of an autumn with a vaccine proved to be a false hope, as we struggle to commemorate the second anniversary of Tree of Life.
Here in Pittsburgh – where the clock tower in Squirrel Hill marks the hours in Hebrew letters – an international conference on hate was scheduled for this month but was postponed because of the pandemic. Here in Pittsburgh – where, unlike other communities, Jewish life is centered in the city rather than in the suburbs – a commemorative book on the tragedy is being published, pandemic be damned. Beyond Pittsburgh the date October 27 may mean nothing, but here in Pittsburgh 10/27 has a 9/11 feel to it: A terrorist attack conducted in stealth and in hate.
Two years on, ours is a country reeling from tragedy, struggling to process it, grappling with how to proceed. Our newspapers and news channels are full of contention and chaos. Our friends and neighbors, even our families, are behind doors or masks. There’s not much of the Anne Frank ethos in my neighborhood, and probably not in yours, either.
And yet. Here is the leader of Tree of Life, yet again:
“Unfortunately, there is in our society a concentration on the negative,” said Rabbi Myers, who has seen his share of the negative. “That is damaging to our psyche. We need to be reminded there are so many good and decent people out there. Ordinarily I would say that we shouldn’t have to celebrate people for being good and decent, but maybe in this atmosphere we need to do that.”
Maybe in this atmosphere we need to do that, on October 28 and on every day. Perhaps that can be the legacy of Tree of Life. The rabbi hopes so. Me, too.
David Shribman, previously the Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the paper’s coverage of the Tree of Life shooting that earned the Pulitzer Prize.