In Squirrel Hill
Walking through downtown Squirrel Hill last Friday, I noticed, not for the first time, how homely it all seemed: the shabby student housing above the storefronts, the faded clapboard of Jerry’s Records, the brushes in the shoe repair window that look as if they were dropped there in 1970, the sidewalk in front of the Greek deli that is scrubbed daily but never gets clean.
On Monday night, at a barricade half a block from Tree of Life Synagogue, I overheard University of Pittsburgh students telling a reporter from Le Monde that the neighbourhood is ‘rich’. ‘A rich neighbourhood?’ he repeated, scribbling into a notebook wet with rain. The houses around the synagogue are brick, with generous front porches, and guarded by maples, rhododendrons, hemlocks. They have a classic Pittsburgh beauty. When I heard the word ‘rich’, I felt the cityscape close in. A story would go to press that people around the world would read in a few hours’ time. Glued to the details of a senseless massacre, would they find some kind of sense in a description of ‘rich’ Jews?
I walked to Tree of Life, expecting the building to look changed. Perhaps, I thought, if I saw the parking lot and the glassed-in lobby where my son used to sit at a plastic folding table with the part-time Hebrew teacher and three other students, eating doughnut holes after school and learning the aleph-bet, I would be able to grasp what had happened. But I couldn’t. The synagogue just looked like a building with a story about it. Yellow tape. Police lights.
My family used to go to the tiny, progressive congregation, Dor Hadash, that shares space in the Tree of Life building. The congregants aren't rich: teachers, therapists, retired people, grad students, families – multi-racial and welcoming. At Passover, after we moved to Pittsburgh from Brooklyn a few years ago, the rabbi invited us over for a Seder. He and his wife live in a little house that overlooks the 376 highway, which everyone refers to as ‘the parkway’. Confusingly, people in Pittsburgh call every highway in the city, no matter the interstate number or direction, ‘the parkway’.
I am talking about highways, houses and doughnut holes because I need Squirrel Hill to return to its right size. It feels weirdly out of scale at the moment, like an enormous parade balloon version of itself. Every cable news crawl has the words ‘Squirrel Hill’ in it. I am trying to shrink the neighbourhood back down, in my mind, to the place where I have picked my son up from preschool, from circus camp, from swimming lessons, leading him out of the tiled Jewish Community Center hallway to the tiny parking garage where I always narrowly miss denting another exhausted parent’s car.
News crews from around the world are positioned across from Tree of Life, on the east side of the building, at Shady and Wilkins, cameras aimed at the tall, thin stained-glass windows. Waiting for more story, they smiled at me with robust cheer as I walked by. A reporter was speaking quickly into a microphone in Spanish, the light of the rainy day augmented by the screens of mobile phones. A few passers-by were laying more cellophane-wrapped bunches of flowers from Trader Joe’s on the sidewalk in front of the temple. There are notes and wooden stars with the victims’ names. Lines of stones and pebbles are accumulating, too, because that is what Jews leave for the dead.
Children went to school today in Halloween costumes. Some are scheduled to have active-shooter drills: dressed as ghouls and zombies, stuffed into broom closets, eating candy to keep quiet.
Leaving my yoga class in downtown Squirrel Hill, I always have to nudge the door open carefully. People are huddled against it, under the awning, as they wait for the bus. Squirrel Hill bus stops are crowded, with people smoking, tapping their phones, hoisting a heavy backpack higher onto a shoulder. Someone will be making their way carefully down the hill with a walking frame. Someone will be carrying take-out from Ka Mei.
The door swung open, and a man with three guns walked into Tree of Life at ten in the morning. ‘Ten a.m.!’ my brother laughed softly on the phone while we were both crying. ‘He came to services at ten?’ Conservative services last many hours; most people arrive closer to 11. No one is at shul at ten except the few old people who come early to unlock the door, turn on the lights.
This mass murderer was an ordinary man who got ideas about Jewish people from a website you could find in a minute. In college, I met a girl from Arkansas who had never met a Jewish person before. She looked surprised when I told her I was Jewish; she had thought Jews had horns. I looked surprised in return. I wonder what the man with the assault rifle expected when he walked in the door: folks stirring a cauldron of blood? What did he picture when he read, on a hate site, that Jews are ‘slaughtering his people’?
The killer had no record as a killer or even as a criminal. He bought three weapons because you can, in Pennsylvania, anytime, from the ubiquitous gun stores. He left a trail of hate, like little stones, on his social media feed. There are trails like it all over the internet. There is no way to tell which one leads to a massacre.
I had been half-waiting for something to happen, I realised after the attack – for swastikas to be spray-painted on the JCC, though not for murder. It was a routine American massacre. Ambulances sped up the hill on Murray, past the two pizzerias vying for the title of city’s best, past the Judaica shop now selling out of memorial candles, past the Moroccan imports place and the day spa with the phone number on the door. Then we sat in front of screens all afternoon, waiting for an explanation.