A Love Letter to Pittsburgh’s Jewish Community

My brother and I often say we didn’t know what an uncommon Jewish community Pittsburgh’s was until we left it. As historian Barbara Burstin has pointed out, it’s one of the few large American Jewish communities whose epicenter has stayed urban. My husband grew up in Louisville, another small city with a surprisingly tight Jewish community, but his family’s synagogue long ago relocated from downtown to the city’s outer borders. The range of Jewish life in Pittsburgh — black-hatted Hasids; elderly, secular Holocaust survivors; kids on their way to their first camp experience at the JCC — is still evident along just a few blocks of Forbes and Murray Avenues in Squirrel Hill, barely half a mile from the Tree of Life synagogue where a terrorist opened fire this past weekend on Jews observing Shabbat services and a bris ceremony.

By now, it’s mostly evident that the gunman who killed 11 people Saturday didn’t have Tree of Life particularly in mind, or even the Pittsburgh Jewish community. Instead, he made his attack on this congregation the sharp point of his blunt hate. In classical anti-Semitic terms, he believed Jews to be responsible for what he perceived as the “genocide of my people” (read: white Christians). He saw this embodied in the support one of Tree of Life’s congregations showed for a 130-year-old refugee aid and resettlement organization.

But even if the Pittsburgh Jewish community was not targeted uniquely, it immediately distinguished itself in its responses to the tragedy and its aftermath. When Trump, rather than offering any shared grief, suggested that more armed guards might have prevented the shooting, Mayor Bill Peduto pushed back. Students at a public high school in Squirrel Hill organized a vigil and led a Havdalah service Saturday night, thronged by thousands. Watching the response of my old home from my new one, across the state in Philadelphia, I’m reminded of what is actually extraordinary about this community: Amid Pittsburgh’s density and diversity of Jewish life, the miraculous happens — a state of affirmative Jewish existence.

I’ll explain. I grew up in Shadyside, one neighborhood over from Squirrel Hill. The punishing hill on Wilkins Avenue, where Tree of Life stands, was part of my regular running route in high school. I walked the six blocks from my parents’ house to Rodef Shalom, the synagogue whose green vaulted roof I could see practically from my bedroom window. In middle school, a group of classmates and I formed a twice-weekly caravan to walk to Hebrew school, stopping at Ruggeri’s market on the way for marshmallow cookies. Before class, we made lewd prank calls on the pay phones in the basement lounge.

When I left home as an adult, I met many other American Jews for whom the studs in the wall of their Jewish identity were uncritical support for the state of Israel and commemoration of the Holocaust. Often, this was all their suburban and/or assimilated congregations had been able to offer them, twice a year or on someone’s bar mitzvah. To engage more deeply would have been to distinguish oneself as Jewish — or in the words of my husband’s childhood rabbi, to be, even as one born into Judaism, a Jew by choice — in a way that risked the sometimes fragile-feeling conditions of their Americanness.

Not until I had lived in several other cities and searched for Jewish community did I realize how much more this Pittsburgh had given me. The child of a Jewish father and a Methodist-born mother, I questioned my own identity early, feeling pulled between the secular Christian culture I saw everywhere and in which I knew my mother to be fluent, and the Jewish traditions I was being raised with.

But at the Pittsburgh JCC, where I practically lived from ages 11 to 15, I belted out songs from WWII alongside friends who attended yeshiva and wore tzitzit and others whose families had fled Russia in the early ‘90s. Across the street, I haunted the Squirrel Hill Library’s ongoing book sale, where I bought crumbling copies of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev. There, I also encountered my first Yiddish books, which the library kept in circulation for the older, fluent speakers who lived in the neighborhood. (Nerd that I was, I spent a few weekend afternoons hunched over a Yiddish copy of Buber’s Tales from the Hasidim and a Yiddish-English dictionary, trying to learn the language of my great-grandparents.)

As a young teenager, I camped out on an Orthodox friend’s back porch during Sukkot, and listened as she recited the Shema before we both drifted off to sleep. After my bat mitzvah, I chose to attend a twice-weekly supplemental Jewish school, where my teachers were secular Israelis, klezmer musicians, and Hasidic rabbis. There, in a Jewish context, I learned irreverence and dissent: When a teacher asked us to design a Hillel building, “in case we attended a college that didn’t have one,” two friends and I found the idea so absurd that we made a mockery of the assignment and got kicked out of class. When the same teacher used offensive language to describe Arabs, we learned that we could push back as Jews.

On dozens of Shabbats, my brother played drums or clarinet in the synagogue band at Temple Sinai. My paternal grandparents lived out their last active years at an assisted living facility on Bartlett Street, just off of a Murray Avenue that must have recalled both their childhoods in Burlington, Vermont and on New York’s Lower East Side, so full was it still of Jewish bakeries and kosher restaurants.

Occasionally I will still meet someone who exclaims, when they learn both how seriously I take my Jewishness and that my mother isn’t Jewish: “So you’re not really Jewish!” Sometimes this person is not Jewish and has heard of matrilineal descent; sometimes they are Jewish, and believe, as America sometimes has, that Jewishness is distinct from Christianity only through a set of rigid religious rules, not through an expansive, ever-changing landscape of religious, cultural, and civic expression. Yiddish Book Center founder Aaron Lansky notes in his book Outwitting History that post-war Yiddish culture flourished in Canada in ways it did not in the U.S. in part because America touted religious, but not cultural, tolerance; in order to survive in America, Jews compressed and limited the full richness of their cultural lives, packaging the whole of their identity in religious custom — or not.

When I consider those well-meaning questions about my Jewish identity in light of tragedies like Saturday’s, I’m often angry that someone can question my choice to embrace my Jewishness in ordinary times, while in moments of horror my right to be part of a Jewish community is never disputed. But in these moments I appreciate Pittsburgh the most.

Pittsburgh’s Jewish community gave me something I’ve learned is uncommonly rare — a rich, multi-faceted, joyful Jewish existence. In its multiplicity, density, and contradictions, it set me free from the version of American Jewishness that is limited to the narrow hallway between the Holocaust and the state of Israel; the Jewishness whose commonality is found more often in tragedy than in joy.

It’s because Pittsburgh’s Jews find regular joy in each other that you see them coming together so powerfully now, in the face of terror. In defiance of an American version of religious liberty that so often doesn’t account for cultural difference, my formative Jewish community let me know that, as in a marriage, I choose it daily, and that every time I do, I am helping to make the Jewish story about choice and growth and change longer than the one about subtraction and destruction.

Leah Falk

Leah Falk’s poems and essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, FIELD, Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. She runs programming at the Writers House at Rutgers University-Camden and lives in Philadelphia.

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