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11 candles in Pinskers’ window

My zaidie spent every day perfecting the art of being a mentch; these precious souls were surely the same -- that's Pittsburgh
Illustrative: Pinskers Judaica, Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, PA. (Google Earth)
Illustrative: Pinskers Judaica, Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, PA. (Google Earth)

Pinskers Judaica was closed. Eleven yahrzeit candles flickered in the window next to them — a handwritten sign saying “Closed because of yesterday.” And there it was, reported in Tablet Magazine, a seemingly benign tidbit of news about a local store on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill, that finally brought me to tears.

Like most American Jews, I suppose, Sunday was spent scouring the news, loading and reloading the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, TOI, Jpost, you name it. We spent hours trying to see if there was some more information about the horrific murders that took place yesterday in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, to see when we could learn the names — and attempt to give some honor to the heretofore nameless victims . But unlike many American Jews, I have grown up honored to be a proud descendent of Squirrel Hill Jews who have been there for over 100 years and I feel blessedly tethered to the place. I can “g’daan taan to git some eygs” with the best of them, and love to shop at the “Giant Igl.” Many of my siblings, even though they never lived in Pittsburgh, are die-hard “Stillers” fans, and I can name the three rivers after which the old Pirates baseball field was named (okay, maybe two).

My zaidie, Donald Butler, lived in Pittsburgh all his life and was a resident, along with my beloved grandmother, his siblings, their spouses, and children, of Squirrel Hill for most of them. Donald Butler and his brother Abraham Butler owned Pinskers on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill for many years. Whenever I would visit, I fondly remember the pride he took in bringing me and my siblings into the store (a short walk from the house) to take anything we wanted (my brothers and sisters and I would look at each other with a wry smile — why couldn’t our grandfather own the comic book store down the street? How many siddurim do we need??) But his pride in owning a store that helped others keep Jewish rituals was apparent, and his exuberance infectious, and we happily indulged him.

That memory, however, is not what made me cry today. I cried, because it suddenly hit me that I am mourning for my zaidie again in all of those lives taken. That is because Zaidie was Jewish Pittsburgh, a close-knit, cross-denominational, cross-cultural dare-I-say-it Eden, where everyone knew each other, and looked out for one another. He, like so many others in his day, fought in World War II and knew what it was like to face down maniacs and fascists. He, like so many others, many of whom I am sure were praying in the Tree of Life synagogue yesterday, spent every day perfecting the art of being a mentch — working hard, taking care of family, friends, community and country — and I am certain that they knew Zaidie. They had to, that was Pittsburgh.

And that is what made me sob. We lost 11 Zaidies on Saturday — I am sure. Pittsburgh makes them that way. And we are left with a job that has now gotten 11 times harder without those precious souls to help show us the way.

Yehi Zichram Baruch

About the Author
Yonina Bendheim Jacobson is a lawyer and an educator from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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