Remembering the Tree of Life massacre up close and personal

A new anthology brings us the voices of those who experienced the tragedy directly and opens the door to deeper listening

Two years ago today, I turned on my phone after a lovely autumnal Shabbat in Boston and saw a message from my mother in Israel.

“We heard the news. It is terrible. We are thinking of you.”

It was a familiar message. I received thousands like it when we lived in Jerusalem, and one terror attack after another took place just down the street. But it was always something friends in America sent to us in Israel. Why would my mother send this kind of message the other way around? Wrong-footed, I opened the NYT page on my browser. And then I stopped caring about who sent what and why. All I could think about were the shots that stole eleven lives in Pittsburgh, and all that they implied.

On the next day, a Sunday, we took our kids to a rally in Boston Common. I listened to city officials, Jewish leaders, priests, and imams speak up against hate. I held hands and sang Jewish songs of hope with young people in Brandeis sweaters. But like my mother’s message, it all seemed familiar-yet-alienating. If I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine that I was back in Israel, standing in yet another rally after yet another terror attack.

The slogans were the same – ‘hate won’t defeat us’ and ‘we shall overcome’. The feeling of sudden unity was similar, as was the sense that by standing together we were defying those who wish to make us all afraid. But the similarities were deceptive. Back in Israel, the “us” and “we” in the slogans would have meant the Jewish People. In Boston, they meant something along the lines of “America as it is meant to be”. In Israel, the defiance would have translated into renewed conviction in the need for Jewish sovereignty. In Boston, it thrummed with the need to recommit to the idea that America must be safe and welcoming to all.

The people around me were not merely protesting antisemitism. They were there to defy xenophobia in the name of the America they love. Looking at them, it hit me forcefully that though I lived at the time in America, I was not an American Jew. The familiarity of the scene was an illusion. I grieved with my American brethren, but I couldn’t pretend to understand the fulness and particular flavor of their grief. To understand, I’d have to set aside my own assumptions and just listen. I would have to accept that the stories they live by are different, and try to hear them with an open heart.

Bound in the Bond of Life, a newly released collection of essays that commemorates what took place in Pittsburgh two years ago today makes this endeavor easier. It offers what its co-editor, archivist Eric Lidji, calls “a close view” into the massacre and its aftermath. Each of the contributors has a personal connection to the massacre, and invites us to examine the events from within. Andrew Goldstein writes about watching SWAT teams running towards the building where he had attended bar mitzvah ceremonies of friends and relatives, Purim gatherings, and family weddings. Ann Belser writes about what it was like to watch events unfold from her own yard, of comforting people who escaped the shul, and of inviting reporters to use the restroom in her house. Beth Kissileff, the book’s co-editor, writes about her husband’s escape from The Tree of Life and how confused she was when he told her what had happened.

Each of these accounts is different. Each offers its own unique and highly personal perspective on the tragedy we commemorate today. Yet they all bring home the same truth. Yes, the Tree of Life Massacre means something to all of us. Yes, as Lidji points out in the book’s introduction, this particular tragedy quickly became a public affair at the heart of many political debates. But before it was any of those things, before it could shake the Jewish world in general, it was also a private, local tragedy that tore apart actual lives, in an actual place, at the heart of a very real network of intimacies. What David M. Shribman calls “the modern-day shots heard ‘round the world” in the book’s Forward were first real-life shots that affected actual, particular people.

By bringing us into the experiences of these actual people, Bound in the Bond of Life takes a step back from the ideological formulations and grand narratives that set us apart from each other. It doesn’t abandon them: each of the book’s contributors brings her or his own personal beliefs and interpretive frameworks into their work. While one writer speaks of her political activism following the attack, for example, another speaks about how alienating said political activism seemed to her at the time.

Yet the focus of these essays is their writers’ lived experience, thus offering us a way to connect despite our differences. As an Israeli Jew, for instance, it was hard for me to relate to the Jewish-American self-perception that I encountered two years ago in Boston Common. But as a human being, I can very much relate to people who experienced loss, and whose intimate spaces suddenly became the site of an attack against them. This resonance makes it easier for me to understand my American brethren’s experience. It opens the door to deeper listening, and to an understanding from within.

But Bound in the book of Life does more than humanize a historic event: it gives us the rare opportunity to see what happens “after the vigil,” in the apt words of contributor Molly Pascal. “Media,” she writes in her essay “Here is Squirrel Hill”, “has steeped us in the pattern… There will be hugging, ululation, an outpouring of thoughts and prayers, then candle-lit vigils. But there the script as I know it ends. After the vigil, what happens?”

Pascal’s essay and the others that follow answer this question. They give those of us who experienced the Tree of Life Massacre from afar a glimpse into the long road that lay – and still lies – ahead of those who lived through it more intimately. From the challenges of handling the artifacts that were created in response to the massacre to the difficulties of moving forwards as a congregation, the essays in the book explore the many small steps that take place long after the public attention shifts elsewhere. By doing so, they offer us more than a glimpse into other people’s experience; they reveal to us their courage and resilience, and offer inspiration when it comes to our own lives.

***

Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy
Edited by Beth Kissileff and Eric Lidji. Univ. of Pittsburgh, $25 (264p) ISBN 978-0-8229-4651-9.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and speaker who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, parenting and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and Kveller, and explores storytelling in the bible as a teacher and on 929.
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