I don’t remember how old I was when I found out Jews were a global minority, but I was definitely way too old. Don’t get me wrong — I’m sure I knew of the horrors of the Holocaust, and I’m even more sure that my mom made me painfully aware of which Hollywood actors were members of the tribe.
But when you grow up in Highland Park, Illinois — the city on the North Shore of Chicago where seven people were killed and over 30 were injured in a mass shooting this July 4th — Judaism is everywhere.
As an icebreaker, I often share how many bar and bat mitzvah invitations I received from 6th to 8th grade: 107. And there were even more held; I just wasn’t popular enough to get invited to them all. Sometimes there were five in one weekend, and you’d shuffle from party to party. Our formative middle-school years were spent dancing snowball and the hora.
In December, Highland Park is dimmer than in most American suburbs, lit with secular lights to acknowledge all winter holidays. If there’s a Christmas tree, there’s an oversized menorah right next to it. No joke: My mom collects Hanukkah decorations, and her prized possession is a giant light-up spinning dreidel. As I grew up, I took notice of the houses with Christmas decorations, sometimes worrying about the gentiles in my town. Did non-Jewish kids wonder why their holiday doesn’t last eight days? Did non-Jewish parents have to find childcare when our public schools were off for the high holidays?
When I moved to the East Coast for college, I’d tell people that the book that inspired “Mean Girls” was an anthropological study of my high school. I never forgot to mention how the movie scrubbed its large Jewish population (except Gretchen Weiners, of course). A non-Jewish friend from home told me that when she arrived at college and met Jews from the rest of the country, she knew more about the Torah than them.
All this is to say: Until this month, telling people I grew up in “Highland Park” meant I’d get a chuckle and a moment of passing judgment about its affluent Jewish community — if they recognized the name at all.
This past week, I met someone new and told them where I grew up. I received a concerned look, a sigh, a “did you know anyone?”
In the public eye, my hometown is no longer a place, no longer the Lululemon-clad shtetl I joked about. Our town’s name is an event, a tragedy, an addition to a devastatingly long list.
While last week’s shooter is a native of Highland Park, he is not Jewish. Though he did try to enter a synagogue in April, I will not conjecture on whether he had antisemitic intentions — but I can almost guarantee that he was well-versed in the Jewish experience. The now-closed pantry and deli that the shooter’s father owned was down the street from my house. In the hours before a family Hanukkah party or Yom Kippur break-fast, my mom would frantically send us over to grab last minute ingredients so dinner could be done by the time my plethora of aunts, uncles and cousins would come over. During Passover, my sisters and I would walk to the shop for glass bottle cokes — made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup, and therefore kosher for the holiday.
If there’s any event that Highland Park has more of than bar and bat mitzvahs, it’s shivas. When both of my grandparents — who raised my mom and her siblings in Highland Park, too — died within a month of each other, we joked about how lucky we are to live in a town with a multitude of shiva catering options. Writing this, I got stressed thinking about all the shiva platters that Once Upon A Bagel, Shaevitz, Max’s Deli and Max and Benny’s will be preparing this week. How does a community so well-equipped to handle individual Jewish griefs grieve something like this?
I wonder when Highland Park will feel safe gathering again — and then I remember that Jewish bereavement necessitates it. Sitting shiva encourages family and friends to join together in mass. A minyan requires at least 10 people in order to come together to pray for the deceased. As each mass shooting feels increasingly like the passing national tragedy of the week, I find myself comforted by the persistence of rituals like shneim asar chodesh, the reciting of the mourner’s kaddish daily in shul for twelve months and the annual lighting of yarzheit candles. Jewish remembrance provides a container for our collective grief, and ensures that these victims’ memories will be a blessing.
As I write this, I am booking a flight to Highland Park. I called my mom, who is still very overwhelmed by COVID risk, and asked her if we could attend in-person services for the high holidays — services for a Jewish community so large that the overflow service takes place in the auditorium of my public high school. I want to gather with the Jewish community that raised me.