By Jody DiPerna
Writer Mark Oppenheimer, author of the new book “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood,” just released by Knopf, was looking for a way to write about the attack that killed 11 congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue three years ago. The more he visited Pittsburgh and more he spent time talking, listening and just being with people, the more absorbed he became with the people who call the Squirrel Hill and the larger city home.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, writers from Pittsburgh tried to work through the shooting on the page and explain the city, the neighborhood, and the tragedy to the outside world. And maybe to themselves, too. Writing for Bloomberg, Pittsburgh writer Brentin Mock described the neighborhood eloquently and with affection, saying: “Squirrel Hill is the change that Pittsburgh wishes to be.”
Squirrel Hill isn’t a finished product, but rather a work in progress, a regenerating process whose best self is that which moves towards the place it wishes to be. Like Mock, Oppenheimer felt the pull of the place — all the variations on Jewishness that exist there, all the different people who live there, old and young, gentile, jew and muslim, Asian and Black and white. He was drawn to those who worked in the aftermath of the attack to bury the dead, comfort the sorrowful, and heal the community. He writes about the best of the place in his prologue:
“But this book is about the people who stopped what they were doing, then did something different, at least for a time. Their response to a uniquely bloody slaughter of Jews transcended religion, ethnicity, and family ties; it teaches us something about the power of proximity, how the streets we walk affect how we treat each other. This book is about people who cared about this shooting, in particular those who faced it together, because they had no choice, because they were neighbors.”
Oppenheimer lives in New Haven, Connecticut. He was the religion columnist for the New York Times and now hosts the podcast “Unorthodox” produced by Tablet magazine. He spoke to Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (PINJ) by telephone recently and talked about some of the ways that Judaism itself guided him through writing this book.
“Even though it’s a narrative about this terrible thing that happened. Through osmosis in the book, you end up learning a lot about Judaism as well,” Oppenheimer said.
“I think that was necessary. These were people who died at worship in a synagogue. Their lives were structured by the Jewish calendar and the mourning around them was structured by the Jewish calendar. So it was really important to convey what a Jewish year looks like.”
Leaning hard on religious practice allowed him to open his focus in ways that are deeply moving. Death, in many ways, is for the living: the time-worn rituals built around mourning are for those who remain, who live with unspeakable loss.
And so the book walks the reader through the year following the attack. Oppenheimer explained that there is a theological underpinning implicit throughout the book that structures and supports the narrative. It was his guide throughout his research and his writing.
“Among other things, the calendar is different. Jewish mourning basically has four phases. Usually burial is within a day,” he said. [In this case, the burials were later, because of the crime and the need for autopsies.]
There are markers of time guiding the bereaved after that — the seven days of sitting shiva, when the family receives mourners at home, followed by the 30 days of shloshim where, as Oppenheimer described it, “You don’t go out to parties — you basically stay somber for 30 days. And try to not do anything vain, not to make it about yourself.”
Throughout the first year, one says the mourner’s prayer, or the Kaddish, every day. Multiple times a day, often. These rituals help to memorialize the dead and keep them in our minds, but in equal part, they help those who are mourning to care for themselves and tend to others who may be lost in grief.
“The Jewish period of mourning is stretched out much longer,” Oppenheimer said. “It’s really because that’s the time that the living people need to grieve, so it’s really structured around the needs of those left behind.”
Around this structure, he weaves different stories. He writes of those who were slain and of their loved ones. He writes stories of the survivors. Daniel Leger, a member of Dor Hadash who was seriously injured in the attack, was incredibly helpful in sharing his story and helping Oppenheimer to fact check. Leger was shot as he and his friend and fellow victim, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz (Rabinowitz was killed that day) tried to aid another congregant who had been shot.
He writes about the different congregations who shared space in the Tree of Life Building at the time — Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light — all different, discrete entities. He writes about the shomrim, or the people who watched over the bodies of the dead according to religious ritual. He writes about the rabbis, not only the rabbis of the three congregations who were attacked that sabbath morning, but other rabbis who aided the community in all kinds of ways.
There are stories of the Allderdice High School kids who understood the importance of gathering that evening, to share sundown, to close the sabbath and to do that together, as a community, in a very open and public place. For those who attended, standing together that evening, in the rain at the corner of Forbes and Murray, it felt essential in ways that are hard to articulate.
He doesn’t shy away from writing about some of the hard stuff. Not everybody agreed on how best to honor the dead. There were and continue to be some knotty debates on this — some viewed the attack as a call to political action, and others in the community felt that was an inappropriate way to mourn. There remains a debate about what to do with the building, which is tricky for a host of reasons, some of them practical and financial. And there is a complicated chapter about President Trump’s visit and the mixed response to that visit.
In researching the book, Oppenheimer came to Pittsburgh 32 times (before the pandemic made travel impossible.) He interviewed 250 or more people. Though his family does have some ties to Pittsburgh, he understood his position as an outsider: digging in to get to know the place was something he recognized as a solemn responsibility.
“I visited from time to time because my dad grew up there, and his ancestors were Pittsburghers. But that doesn’t count for much unless you actually do the work. So I was very mindful that it had to be a really immersive experience if I was going to do the book,” Oppenheimer said.
The book ends up being about many things. It is about a place. And it is about anti-semitism, hate crimes and gun violence. It is about one neighborhood. And it is about an entire city, as we are, as we would like to be, and as we were in one of the single worst moments of the city’s history. Then, too, it is about the ineffable things that draw us together, how we mourn together and how we can find our way to be better neighbors.
“That’s the only thing we know,” Oppenheimer said. “The only thing we can control is how we treat ourselves and our loved ones. When somebody has died — it’s how we treat the living, how we take care of ourselves if we’re grieving and how we take care of other grievers.”