On Oct. 27, 2018, a gunman killed 11 Jews who were worshipping at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history. In his recent book, Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood, Mark Oppenheimer has offered a piercing portrait of the struggles and triumphs of one of America’s renowned Jewish neighborhoods in the wake of unspeakable tragedy. Oppenheimer recently visited the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics to deliver a public lecture. During his visit, Religion & Politics Editor Marie Griffith sat down with Oppenheimer for an interview covering his experiences writing the book and what all of us can learn from this community’s response.
Mark Oppenheimer is the author of five books, including Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture and The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia. He was the religion columnist for The New York Times from 2010 to 2016 and has written for The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Mother Jones, The Nation, and The Believer, among other publications. The host of Tablet magazine’s podcast Unorthodox, Oppenheimer has taught at Stanford, Wellesley, and Yale, where since 2006 he has directed the Yale Journalism Initiative. He lives with his family in New Haven, Connecticut.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Religion & Politics: When did you know you wanted to write a book on the Squirrel Hill community?
Mark Oppenheimer: I wouldn’t say that I knew on Oct. 27, 2018, when the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue happened, but I knew shortly thereafter. I was in Newton, Mass., at a synagogue with my eldest daughter for the bat mitzvah of a summer camp friend of hers. We found out when we left the synagogue. I was shocked not only because there was a shooting at a synagogue and 11 people were dead, but because Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood in which the synagogue exists and where the shooting occurred, is where my dad was from, as well as multiple generations before him. Over the next few days, I realized that if there was any role for me to play as a journalist it would be to write about the neighborhood. The neighborhood always loomed large in the mythology of my family and in my dad’s stories, and I had seldom been there growing up. I knew my father’s old neighborhood mostly through the lens of family legend and then to some extent through what I had learned in my training as a historian of American religion, which is that it was a very important and central neighborhood in the American Jewish experience. This shooting occurring there seemed to be a calling to go study how the neighborhood responded.
R&P: What are your ties going back generations to that part of Pittsburgh?
MO: My dad’s family goes back in Pittsburgh into the 1840s. He had two great-great-grandfathers who were among the first Jews to settle in Pittsburgh permanently. There were a lot of Jewish peddlers going up and down the rivers of the Midwest in the 1840s. Pittsburgh, as baseball fans know because the city used to have Three Rivers Stadium, sits at the confluence of three rivers: the Ohio, the Allegheny, and the Monongahela. There was a lot of peddling and trading on those rivers, but you know that Jews are putting down roots and staying when they buy land or a graveyard for a cemetery. There were four families that purchased the land for the first Jewish graveyard in Pittsburgh. One of the founders of that community, one of the four men who acquired that title was William Frank, who was one of my great-great-great-grandfathers. His daughter Julia married the son of another early settler, Isaac Oppenheimer, the son being Moses Oppenheimer. Isaac and William were of the first generation; they both came over from Europe and settled in Pittsburgh.
So my dad’s family goes back to Pittsburgh a very long way and they were early members of Temple Rodef Shalom, which is the oldest Reform temple in Pittsburgh and a kind of early Reform temple in American Jewish history. But Squirrel Hill was not settled thickly until about the time of World War I, so the first two generations of my family in the United States were probably in Allegheny City or downtown Pittsburgh, other neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. When Squirrel Hill was founded, a lot of Jews moved east by two or three miles into Squirrel Hill around World War I. My great-grandfather Oscar bought a house, I think, on Bartlett Street probably around the time of World War I and so they were then in Squirrel Hill for three generations. But then my dad left.
R&P: You follow the aftermath of this terrible mass shooting at Tree of Life Congregation and what happens after the media stops paying attention to some degree. What did you find there when you first arrived?
MO: The first thing that you find when you arrive several weeks after a mass killing, if it’s in a well-defined neighborhood where people are living in close proximity and connected through a commercial district and lots of public institutions—as they are in Squirrel Hill where you can go to the supermarket, the kosher market, the bookstore, the post office, the public high school, the public library, all in a 20-minute, one-mile circuit of walking—is that there are visual reminders of the tragedy everywhere. In the storefront windows, up and down Forbes Avenue and Murray Avenue, you saw the names of the 11 dead. Everywhere there would be a list of the names. There were a lot of posters of Tim Hindes’ design of the Pittsburgh Steelers logo with the yellow hypocycloid replaced by a yellow Star of David, and the word “Steelers” replaced with “Stronger Than Hate.” That poster was everywhere. Lots of signs that just said “Shalom” or “Peace.” And there were probably already some homemade Stars of David hanging from trees and lampposts.
If you didn’t know what happened when you got there, you immediately would have figured out something terrible had happened and something was being memorialized. I would also say that there was a sense as you walked these streets that people were greeting each other with that kind of knowing, tight-lipped smile, a little bit of a grimace and a nod as if presuming that both of you knew what had happened and you were acknowledging in each other the pain that presumably you both had gone through, even if you didn’t know each other. There really was a palpable sense of solemnity and sorrow as you walked the streets, and I remember feeling that heaviness immediately.
R&P: One of the things you write about is trauma tourism or the problematic role of outsiders coming in. How did you then go about with your reporting and with cultivating relationships with people grappling with such a tragedy?
MO: I found that most people, well over 90 percent of the people I tried to interview, were gracious and often eager to talk to me. But that’s something I find in general when I’m doing journalism. Most people want to tell their story. I had very few doors closed in my face either literally or metaphorically. I also came after most of the media had left already. I think people had a chance to exhale after the initial confrontation with network reporters, public radio reporters, and print reporters from around the world. And I did my reporting over 17 months. I was not part of the initial, probably oppressive, influx of journalists. There would have been advantages to being there that first day and week, but there were advantages to coming a little bit later also.
R&P: One backdrop of the book is the rise in anti-Semitic crimes in the U.S. and elsewhere. You say that for many Americans the narrative of Jews isn’t one of being imperiled or oppressed in this country. I wonder if the recent rise in anti-Semitic attacks changed that.
MO: I have thought for several years now that what we’re seeing regarding anti-Semitism is that there are, I used to say two America’s, two American Jewries, but there are really three American Jewries. I’ve been corrected on this fruitfully, I think. There are Jews who seldom step into Jewish spaces and are not publicly identified as Jews, and they experience almost no anti-Semitism. For them, America is still perhaps the freest, safest, happiest place to be Jewish in world history. There is another group of Jews who either because of how they dress or the entirely Jewish neighborhood in which they live, or their willingness to step into Jewish spaces—be they kosher markets, Jewish community centers, Jewish day schools, Jewish buildings hosting Jewish film festivals, or synagogues—put themselves at risk. Anti-Semites who are looking to harm Jews don’t go into the phonebook and find somebody with a Jewish last name and drive to their house and firebomb it. What they do is they either look for people on the street who look identifiably Jewish because of their garb, or they go to a Jewish space like the Tree of Life synagogue or a Jewish community center.
There is a third space that probably counts as a space all its own, which is the American college campus where there’s been a rise in anti-Semitism. There are students who are exploring their Jewish identity, who don’t know yet if they’re secular. They don’t necessarily think of themselves as people who go to Hillel or go to Jewish services on campus, or belong to a Jewish fraternity or sorority, but they are exploring their Jewish identity. Sometimes they don’t want to have to be closeted as Jews and they’re finding their identity under attack before they’ve even figured out what their identity is. And that’s a lot of Jews, that’s tens of thousands of Jews probably. So, there is no one unified Jewish experience with regard to anti-Semitism. I think there are at least three.
R&P: Going back to Squirrel Hill, you profiled several rabbis in the book from different strains of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist. In this process, you tell a story of American Judaism and the struggle to maintain congregations. I’m wondering what you think is in store for the Tree of Life Congregation and other Jewish groups in that space.
MO: Tree of Life was already a landlord to two other congregations: Dor Hadash and New Light, and all three of those congregations lost people that day. Tree of Life lost seven, NewLight lost three, and Dor Hadash, which is a Reconstructionist congregation, lost one. Tree of Life has lost membership as quickly as any formerly large synagogue in America, it seems. They were close to 1,000 families 30 years ago and are between 200 and 250 now. Part of the story I tell is how they were already suffering this decline. It’s not atypical for American Conservative Judaism, but it is on the drastic end of things. The building has still not reopened for a complicated set of reasons.
R&P: I didn’t realize that the Tree of Life building is still empty. I understand that there are plans underway to build a new complex, but why has it been so difficult?
MO: There was probably an excess of democracy. There were a lot of committees that met. There was a lot of polling and surveying. There was, I think, not a leadership vacuum at the top but probably quite the opposite, probably an overly solicitous, overly engaged, overly attuned leadership that wanted to make sure that everyone was heard. I think there was a philosophical problem that nobody ever named and therefore was never really solved, which is that when something terrible happens in a physical space in America, there are two warring impulses. There is, on the one hand, the impulse to go right back in and say, “we’re not going to let the terrorists, murderers, arsonists, whoever, win and the way we’re going to defeat them is by reclaiming the space right away.” I call this the Israeli model. In Israel, if there’s a bombing at a café in the morning, they clean up and have dinner that night because that’s how you keep going.
The contrary model, which I think of as the American civil society model and to some extent a very Christian model of seeing space itself as highly sacred, is that you can’t go back in until you’ve had many meetings, treated the space as solemn, figured out how to approach it with the due reverence and solemnity, and somehow propitiated the ghosts of the dead who are hovering around it. Jews don’t have a strong sense of our ancestors hovering in the afterlife watching over us. We don’t have saints. There’s no metaphysical power accrued to those who have died. There’s no particular need to be delicate about their memories. And we also don’t tend to think of space, at least until the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, as having sacred or metaphysical substance. In Judaism, all you need are 10 adult Jews and a Torah scroll and you can then have your service in a bath house, outside a trash compactor, next to the landfill. So, the idea that somehow you must wait until a defiled building like Tree of Life is somehow undefiled before you can worship in it strikes me as profoundly un-Jewish, but it is profoundly American.
R&P: You introduced the readers to a lot of community members who are so interesting. I wish we could talk about all of them, but I’m thinking about Dan Leger who was wounded but survived. He shows the ups and downs of trying to heal while facing so much outside attention.
MO: I think Dan Leger had an especially difficult challenge because he was one of two wounded congregants who had to deal with their own injuries while also often consoling people who saw them and would break down in tears. Andrea Wedner was also shot and injured, as were police officers. But I think that there’s a special grief and a special challenge for the 11 survivors felt. There were 22 people inside the building. But 11 survived and everyone knows who those 11 are, and I think that there’s nothing like that experience of having gotten out alive. It’s both a haunting experience and an experience of extraordinary fortune. What was Churchill’s line? “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”
R&P: One man, whom the gunman looked at but didn’t shoot, said it’s not fortune. It’s just “things happen.”
MO: Yeah, everyone’s different and I think one of the things I learned is that there’s no one path to recovery. Not everyone even feels the need to recover. People react to things differently. There’s no one model of trauma, of grief, of mourning. Some people bounce back from things much more quickly, some never recover, and any presumptions about how a particular survivor is doing are as likely to be wrong as not.
R&P: You show this community that’s politically divided, including over Trump’s visit and then the controversial gun control reference. In what ways was the shooting politicized and how did that play out?
MO: There were definitely people who felt that any meaningful response to this event had to include activism for better gun laws. Then there were people who felt the exact opposite, which was that any sensitive, caring, meaningful response to the death of their loved ones should be apolitical because to politicize the deaths was to instrumentalize them for other people’s causes without stopping to think how best to honor the dead. And then there were people, I think most people were probably in some sort of middle, thinking that there were lessons to be drawn but they should be drawn at the right time and place and that there was a choreography that had to be respected about when and how and where to invoke the Tree of Life killings as evidence for a particular political position. All these people live amongst each other and it’s not like, well, that block is pro-Trump or that block is pro-gun control. They’re all related to each other, live amongst each other, see each other every day, and that was one of the really interesting things to me, the coexistence in Squirrel Hill.