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New book on shooting Tree of Life is a tribute to an iconic Jewish neighborhood

Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle via JTA – Mark Oppenheimer’s new book, “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood”, recounts the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history through interviews with those affected – Both directly and tangibly – by the shooting, examining the effects of the incident on Squirrel Hill, the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Pittsburgh where the Tree of Life is located.

The author’s Pittsburgh Jewish roots go back several generations. His great-great-grandfather co-founded the first Jewish burial society in Pittsburgh, and his father grew up on Aylesboro Avenue in the center of Squirrel Hill.

In writing his book, Oppenheimer traveled to the city 32 times, interviewed about 250 people, and contacted the relatives of eight of the 11 people killed that day. He also relied heavily on various news reports, including several published in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.

Oppenheimer is the host of Tablet magazine’s podcast “Unorthodox” and the author of five books, including “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture” and “The Newch Jewish Encyclopedia”. He was a religion columnist for The New York Times from 2010 to 2016.

Oppenheimer had a virtual conversation with the Chronicle ahead of the book’s release. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle: Why did you decide to write this book now?

Mark Opheimer (courtesy)

oppenheimer: I was always curious about Squirrel Hill. On the morning of shooting, I was with my eldest daughter at a bat mitzvah in Newton, Massachusetts. We had left our phones in the car till after lunch. We got back to our car, I opened my phone, and I had a ton of messages. “Is everyone safe in Pittsburgh? Are you going to Pittsburgh? Do you know anyone in Pittsburgh?”

Then I looked at my news app and saw that a synagogue in Squirrel Hill was shooting. It was immediately registered as the neighborhood where my father and grandfather and great-grandfather all lived.

My father was a fifth-generation Pittsburger and his family settled in Squirrel Hill around the time Jews were settling there around World War I. I was afraid for the community. I felt connected to the community.

A memorial to the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. (Hayne Grace Yagel via JTA)

To be clear, I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, but I knew, as a historian of American religion, that Squirrel Hill had a reputation as an extremely old, extremely stable Jewish community in the annals of American-Jewish history. special place. Jewish in origin for about 100 years. Ironically, this horrific attack would be to a community that has been so special to American Jewry that it seemed to be called upon to explore more.

I was also curious about what a community has in terms of stability, in terms of having multi-generational families, mobility, good urban street life, local institutions, schools, synagogues, churches, shopping districts. There are so many advantages, how would it be to be resilient to face something terrible.

What does the community represent for you, and has that changed because of the shooting?

My father had this wonderfully idyllic childhood in a community where it was safe, where people looked out for each other, where there were all kinds of Jews, from the most secular to the most conservative, and that people were basically very lived happily. I also knew that Pittsburgh was a good city to be Jewish, that there was little anti-Semitism, that it was a city of ethnic neighborhoods and that people respected different races. I knew it as a special place.

I don’t think shooting has changed everything that has mattered to me. I feel bad for Pittsburgers now that some people will think of Pittsburgh as an act of violence, but the city and its neighborhoods are as wonderful as ever. I don’t think the shooter has changed that.

Squirrel Hill by Mark Oppenheimer

For whom did you write the book?

I always write for the public. I always write with the hope that anyone who is curious about humans and wants to read something interesting will find it in my work. I think this book will be interesting for Jews, but it is not only for Jews. I think it is for everyone who is curious about the human experience and the way people cope with difficult times.

With that said, the book is not a strictly Jewish book, nor is it strictly a Squirrel Hill or Pittsburgh book. It seems to encompass everyone and everything.

Given that you don’t live in the neighborhood, why did you find it the right person to write this book?

I think there are so many right people to write about everything. There should be many books about every aspect of the human experience. My book is the third book that touches heavily on this shoot. I’m not a Pittsburger, I’m a journalist. Journalists should go wherever their curiosity takes them, and report whatever they find with truth and empathy.

Driver’s license photo of Pittsburgh synagogue massacre suspects Robert Bowers (Pennsylvania DOT)

You have named the shooter in the book. Not many people in the local media, including the Chronicle, would do that. Why did you take that decision?

Since someone is writing for posterity, I have no choice. Imagine if the shooter was not named in all the books about Tree of Life shooting. How would one study the shooting, how would we have an accurate record of this despicable, anti-Semitic, fanatical terrorist act? We need the names of historical Nazis, historical racists, historical anti-Semitism, historical terrorists. These are important to the public record. I didn’t think I had a choice.

One of the points you raise is that there is a cottage industry built around every mass shooting, but aren’t books like this part of that industry?

This is a good question. It’s hard to think of my book and two others that have stood out as representing an industry in the past three years. It is certainly true that journalists covering tragic events have to contend with the irony that they are making their living writing about tragic events. There is no way around it. There should be journalism about tragic events and destructive human behavior.

Victims of the October 2018 Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting. (Facebook/Google Maps/JTA Collage)

It should be a profession that should be undertaken by those who try their best to be ethical and competent. You wouldn’t want this to be done only by volunteers or only by people living through it. We are often paid to investigate other people’s misfortunes. And it doesn’t always feel good. But I think it’s important work, especially in a free society.

What lessons have you learned from writing the book?

Squirrel Hill reminded me of something that other reporting had led me to believe: Most people thrive and thrive better when they live in relatively dense, walkable close neighborhoods. For most people, this is a better way to live. And that if something bad happens to them, they will be grateful for the closeness of their friends and neighbors.

This interview was originally published in Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.

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