This morning we decided, even though the weather was gray and there was a chance of rain, to head off to the Farmers’ Market. We love being in Madison and having this gem in our yard, even though we haven’t been down to the Market since the summer. We figured since there’s only a couple weeks left to the outdoor season, so we should go.
But this isn’t about the Market or about the autumn or the fall harvest or any of those beautiful images.
As it is our habit, we begin by getting breakfast at Gotham Bagels. While Trav waited in line, I snagged a table and occupied my time with reading the news. And then I saw it: Breaking News from The New York Times: “There are multiple casualties in a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the police said. Two officers who responded to the scene were shot.” That was at 10:26 a.m., central time when I received that first bit of news. Not long after that, my mother called and one of my closest friends texted me. Since I was in a restaurant, I couldn’t really hear the phone or the text, but the upshot is that they wanted me to know.
While I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and I have lived in places as diverse as Boston, Manhattan, San Angelo, Texas, and Hattiesburg, Mississippi (among others), I went to graduate school in Pittsburgh. While I went to get my MFA in poetry—typically a two- to three-year degree—I lived in Pittsburgh for six years. Except for one academic year living in the Friendship neighborhood, I lived in Shadyside. While I imagine Shadyside is now fully gentrified, when I lived there in the late 80s and early 90s, it was diverse neighborhood (not as diverse as Friendship or East Liberty) with interesting old buildings that I’m guessing have been rehabbed. Just across Fifth Ave and up a monster of hill was Squirrel Hill. Friends of mine lived there in apartments or subdivided homes, much as many of us did in Shadyside or Oakland or any of the other neighborhoods close to Pitt or Carnegie Mellon where we all went to school.
I also babysat for a family who lived in Squirrel Hill. They had four kids, the last two were twins. My last year in Pittsburgh, I was one of their primary babysitters, spending a lot of Saturday nights making mac ‘n cheese, playing board games, watching movies like Aladdin, and then begging the oldest to go the hell to bed.
Squirrel Hill was also the place where one friend and I worked out at the Pink Lady Gym as we called it (even after they painted it and it was no longer pink). Squirrel Hill also had one of the last The Lodge stores, where once we bought—together—four pair of shoes for about $17 (they were on super clearance). When my parents came to town, I took them to Katz’s Deli, which had the best corned beef sandwich—bigger than your head—and so lean you could weep. And there was a Giant Eagle grocery right on Murray Ave that one of my classmates from Pitt remarked that she got the most beautiful pork chops there one weekend. I remarked back, what do you expect, no one else is buying too many pork chops in Squirrel Hill.
That is to say, Squirrel Hill was and has been, a historically Jewish neighborhood. I remember the summer before I moved being at a party hosted by a friend I worked with who was an Orthodox Jew. That meant for her and most of the people she knew (except for me), that she kept Kosher, kept the Sabbath, and a whole host of other traditions that observant and Orthodox Jews follow. At the party, she mentioned to a group of guys she introduced me to (she was always hoping I would become observant and marry a nice Jewish boy), that I was moving to Pittsburgh. They all wanted to know if I was moving to Squirrel Hill. They all knew there was a strong Orthodox community there. While I wasn’t—and I wasn’t and am not Orthodox, I learned soon that there is a strong Jewish community in general there.
So Squirrel Hill is a neighborhood. There’s some businesses. And a community. It’s the place where your bubbie might live.
And this latest shooting also happened there. I say latest, because I know it’s not the last. I am not being glib. Since 2017, we’ve had 14 mass shootings according to The Washington Post, not counting today’s latest horrific shooting. A mass shooting by most accounts is where four or more people are killed. I did the math from The Post, and 162 were killed and nearly 500 injured in those nearly 22 months. I realize I’m not counting the daily violence that happens in cities like Chicago or other mass killings where cars and trucks have been weaponized. I just want to look at guns. Face it, if you don’t know this (and I think you all do), Congress has allowed itself to first look the other way when a shooting happened and the NRA whipped everyone into a frenzy about taking their guns away. Then they became complicit—especially when they allowed nothing to happen when 26 people—20 first-graders were mowed down. And then they got on its hands and knees to… You fill in the blanks about what they and the NRA have done when 58 people were killed in Las Vegas at a concert or 17 people at a high school or 25 people at church or two folks just grocery shopping at their local Kroger’s, or now, 11 who just went to shul on a Saturday morning.
There were services going on in three different parts of the building (for three different congregations). At the main one, Tree of Life, there was a baby naming going on. This is a service for a newborn girl; boys at eight days have a bris. While there is no physical altering to the child, it is a ceremony that I have to imagine was an egalitarian act for a congregation that believes “As a conservative Jewish congregation, Tree of Life… remains true to traditional teachings, yet is also progressive and relevant to the way we live today.” Conservative Judaism for those who aren’t familiar with the different sects of Judaism, is really considered “middle of the road.” That is, they do not believe in a more literal translation of the Torah (the old Testament), but they are not as far afield as Reform Jews. I grew up in a conservative synagogue. Men and women sat together, girls were bat mitzvahed just like the boys were bar mitzvahed, but the shul kept kosher, while I imagine a lot of the congregants did not. At the same time, I imagine that the folks at Tree of Life were a community of people together today celebrating not only the Shabbat, but a baby.
And then this.
According to The New York Times, Anti-Semitic incidents increased 57% in 2017. And I’m pretty sure that in general racist and xenophobic incidents are up as well—and I’m also guessing, their surge is even higher. I’ll admit that these incidents did not begin with Trump, but he stands there at campaign rallies and golf courses and in meetings with foreign dignities and at the UN and everywhere he steps, fans these flames. I don’t care if he has his tongue in Bibi Netanyahu’s ear—he also has it the crown prince of Saudi Arabia’s ear—and the NRA, and god knows who or what else. This is the same 45 who said that there are good people on both sides.
This is to say, I don’t know what to do with the anger I feel that has been increasing with each killing, each indignity, each and every fucking lie. I keep telling myself that I should not wish death on anyone. So fine, I don’t wish death on anyone. But I would love the ones who love these guns to find themselves in a situation where they experience a good deal of life-changing fear. No physical pain, just fear. But would that really change anything?
So home now from the Farmers’ Market, it’s chilly and quiet here in my home office as it gets dark. I am lucky—I have an office and I look out to a wooded berm behind our house. Often this helps calm me down, but all over my Facebook feed and elsewhere in real life, people are mourning this latest horror. It’s not that I’m not sorry for those sad sad souls. I am. And while I feel a connection as a former resident of the city and a Jew, I know that I am not one of those poor souls. Or rather I am. We all are. Because today it is a shul in Squirrel Hill, but how long will it be until it’s my shul or your church or our school or concert or rally for peace? It is the hate, but is also the guns. How long are we going to allow this, Congress? We don’t get the escorts you get, and it’s clear it’s open season on just about everyone. I know I am going to vote in ten days. I hope to God, that if you believe as I do, that we need to get guns out of people’s hands at the same time, and we need to fight this overwhelming hate, that you will show up and vote too.