Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, the rabbi at Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh, the location of the largest massacre of Jews in US history, has created a new martyrology for Yom Kippur. This is the story of how Jerusalem played a role in its development.
A martyrology is a list of martyrs. The classic Jewish martyrology, Eleh Ezkera, is recited on Yom Kippur afternoon. In it, we retell the dramatic and viscerally painful story of the Aseret Harugei Malchut, 10 mishnaic era rabbis who were martyred by the Roman Empire in the period after the destruction of the Second Temple.
The poem begins: “These things I remember, and my heart is grieved. How the arrogant devoured our people…”
How could the members of Tree of Life recite this poem and not be torn by the horrors of their own experiences? How a terrorist with a gun devoured our people? Their friends and family.
Rabbi Myers, recognizing the renewed pain that that moment could bring — and in the spirit of the machzor, the High Holiday prayer book — created a new martyrology for his congregation.
In the introduction he writes: “Eleven new martyrs were added to a list that is already unbearably long. I felt the need to offer a reworked Martyrology that remembered our past yet honored our newest martyrs. It is in that spirit that I humbly offer Echad Esrei Harugei Sin’ah, Eleven Slaughtered by H.” In the pamphlet, Rabbi Myers never fully translates the final word of the title, using an “H” to represent the Hebrew word for hate.
The new martyrology begins simply, echoing the classic text: “These I remember and pour out my soul. How the arrogant have devoured us, like an unfinished cake.” Then, the names of these new martyrs:
What follows is a collection of readings and poetry, some from Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), some from Jewish and non-Jewish writers, and some prayer/poems written in the wake of the horrific attack on his synagogue.
Jerusalem’s contribution can be found in the middle of the pamphlet, an English and Hebrew acrostic prayer.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, I received an email from Rabbi Hara Person, now chief executive officer of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Rabbi Person asked — only hours after the attack — if I had a prayer to contribute to a rapid response resource kit that her organization was rushing to produce.
The question wasn’t out-of-the-blue. Part of my mission as a modern liturgist is to create “rapid response” prayers. I’ve written many — after natural disasters and terror attacks, for example — posting them online and sharing them with organizations like RavBlog, Ritualwell and ReformJudaism.org.
At that moment, however, I had nothing. The attack was so horrifying, my emotions shut down. I was dumbfounded. Being asked to provide a source of meaning and comfort for congregations across the US was a summons to write. I pulled out an age-old liturgical device, an acrostic prayer called “Tree of Life, Pittsburgh.”
I immediately regretted sending it. Writing in a state of shock, my judgement was that it was inadequate. After about two hours, I began writing an email to ask Rabbi Person to delete it. Too late. The resource kit was already out. That’s how Tree of Life Rabbi Myers found it.
Because of my own harsh critique, I never posted the prayer to my own website. When I received an email from Rabbi Myers email asking for permission to use it in the martyrology, it was clear that I’d been too harsh on my own work. At that point, I posted it to my website. You can read it here.
That’s how Rabbi Aytan Kadden, an educator in Jerusalem, found it. His immediate response: translate it into Hebrew. Together with Kol Ha’ot director Elyssa Moss-Rabinowitz, Rav Kadden created a Hebrew version of the prayer. The Hebrew is interpretive, using “Eitz Chaim” — rather than the English “Tree of Life” — for the acrostic. The Hebrew is energized by references to Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) and siddur (the Jewish prayer book).
Rabbi Myers eagerly embraced the idea of including a Hebrew version in the martyrology. One problem. A technical one. Rabbi Myers couldn’t successfully move the Hebrew prayer into DavkaWriter, a Hebrew English word processor many congregations use for prayer booklets. He asked for help. I put out a call on Facebook for someone skilled in DavkaWriter to assist with the file.
Rabbi Don Cashman, spiritual leader of B’nai Sholom Reform Congregation, Albany, NY, responded. He went through the file and discovered a small mistake in the insertion of a Hebrew vowel that fouled the alignment of the vowels beneath the letters. In the process, he proofread the nikud (the vowel symbols) and discussed a few discrepancies with Rav Kadden.
The English and Hebrew versions of the prayer now appear side-by-side in the new martyrology.
Rabbi Myers has made the martyrology available to other congregations as a source of readings from the bimah, noting that he did not receive permissions from the authors to reprint the contributed works beyond use in his own congregation.
The martyrology closes as it opened, with the names of the murdered. “God full of mercy, who dwells on high, establish proper rest upon the wings of the Divine Presence, on the levels of the holy and pure ones who shine like the splendor of the firmament, for the souls of the kedoshim of Pittsburgh, murdered al Kiddush Hashem, because we pray for the elevation of their souls. And remember for us their sacrifice and let their merit stand for us and for all of Israel.”
So may it be G-d’s will. And may the arrogant never again devour our people.
For “Tree of Life, Pittsburgh” in English, click here.
For “Eitz Chaim, Pittsburgh” in Hebrew, click here. This link also provides a downloadable PDF with an annotated set of the prayers in both languages.
See also: “Ma’oz Tzur for Pittsburgh,” “Taharot in Pittsburgh,” “After a Deadly Anti-Semitic Attack” and “Racist Violence against Houses of Worship.”