Songs in the key of life and death
The rhythms, both religious and musical, of a wrenching week in Squirrel Hill
It turned into a sadly repetitive routine. Drive to the site of the funeral — a synagogue, the JCC, the funeral home — about an hour early to find parking. Park anywhere; the police were too busy to worry about parking tickets. Dash between TV crews and photographers stationed at a tactful distance across the street to capture images of the grief. Find a seat inside, if you can.
This was the schedule for much of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community as well as for this reporter last week as nine families buried their loved ones, the 11 victims of the Tree of Life shooting. Among the dead were two brothers with developmental disabilities known to some as the community’s “gentle giants,” and to others as the mayors of Squirrel Hill; a couple, remembered for doing everything together, who died in each other’s arms in the very synagogue in which they were married more than 50 years ago; a doctor who treated every patient with dignity at the height of the AIDS epidemic, who died trying to heal the wounded one last time. “We lost more than a minyan yesterday,” said Jeff Finkelstein, CEO of Pittsburgh’s federation, at the Oct. 28 interfaith vigil a day after the horror. “We lost 11 of our neighbors,” said Mayor Bill Peduto, echoing the themes of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” the legendary children’s TV show hosted by Squirrel Hill resident Fred Rogers.
Carried out early in the morning when few people had arrived for the 9:45 services, the Oct. 27 massacre struck at the community’s foundations — the members who made up the minyan and led the services, the ones who came early to set up the kiddush and stayed late to clean up. In conversations around Squirrel Hill, residents spoke of how lucky they were that the gunman showed up when so few people were inside. Others wondered why the gunman had chosen Tree of Life rather than one of the many other synagogues located within a few blocks of the building. “He must have driven past here on his way there,” said one person standing in the lobby of a nearby synagogue. “Why them?”
Even in the airport on my way to Pittsburgh the day after the attack, the city’s residents waiting to return home could be seen trying to make sense of the tragedy. “People give directions based on the synagogues,” said Max Gelernter, a 26-year-old who was bar mitzvah’ed at Pittsburgh’s Temple Israel. “Every block basically has one.”
Throughout the week, members of Tree of Life, New Light, and Dor Hadash — the three synagogues housed under one roof — assembled at Congregation Beth Shalom for morning and evening services while their synagogue remained closed, a crime scene. They recited Psalms and the Mourner’s Kaddish. Between vigils, protests, funerals, and shivas last week, they shopped for groceries at Giant Eagle, stopped into Milky Way for a kosher slice of pizza, and went to daily services at a greater frequency than usual. Murray Avenue Kosher Market hurried to fill orders of kugel and potato salad for shiva meals, often refusing to accept payment. The Judaica store in Squirrel Hill remained closed on Monday. “Because yesterday,” a sign on the door read. A bouquet of flowers was wedged in the door handle.
While the community focused on mourning and burying the dead and keeping up some semblance of normality for the children, the national media descended on Squirrel Hill. “You’re not going to ask me about Trump?” asked one woman I spoke to in surprise. It seemed every other reporter had.
Reporters trekked up and down the hill that is Murray Avenue, Squirrel Hill’s main commercial drag, filming residents for their newscasts. They interspersed those clips with shots of Tree of Life and its impressive stained-glass windows, filmed with cameras set up in tents across the street. When President Donald Trump arrived last Tuesday, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life graciously welcomed him and accepted his sympathies. As the motorcade passed a large demonstration, protesters turned their backs to the president. Protesters, mourners, rabbis, and reporters alike struggled to define the story of the killings, the politics, and the response.
Punctuating every day of funerals was the voice of Myers (whom one speaker deemed “America’s rabbi” at one funeral), chanting Psalm 23 at the funerals of seven of his murdered congregants. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” he read at last Sunday’s vigil. “Well, God,” he said with the bite of a sermonizing rabbi, “I want.”
Other songs, like Hezekiah Walker’s “I Need You to Survive,” could be heard that week. “I pray for you, you pray for me / I need you, I need you to survive,” sang the Rodman Street Baptist Missionary Church choir at the Oct. 28 vigil. The choir sang the same song at an interfaith prayer service a few days later, where the choir was joined by members of New Light. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin led vigil-goers, via video, in reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish. WQED, Pittsburgh’s classical music radio station, played Jewish-themed music by Ernst Bloch and Leonard Bernstein. Protesters sang a song of peace and resistance, “Olam Chesed Yi’Baneh,” “We Will Build this World with Love.”
At the last funeral I attended, for Sylvan and Bernice Simon, Myers sang the by-then familiar and haunting tune for Psalm 23. Then he called up the other Tree of Life congregants to join him at the front of the hall. Sylvan Simon, the rabbi said, loved to sing the song “L’Dor Vador,” meaning “from generation to generation.” The congregation led the rest of us in a rendition of the call-and-response song. “From generation to generation we will sing your praises. Forever and ever we will sanctify your holiness.”
Shira Hanau is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.