nonfiction

Book Review: Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood by Mark Oppenheimer

As soon as I heard that Mark Oppenheimer was writing a book about the Squirrel Hill synagogue shooting, I added the book to my want-to-read list. This horrible even happened before my conversion, but converting had been something I’d been considering many, many years prior. I was sitting in the waiting area of my daughter’s gymnastics class that Saturday when my phone started buzzing and the news that a shooting had happened in a Pittsburgh synagogue began to fill my news feed. As I have a friend who lives in the area, I went to her Facebook page and began frantically refreshing her feed, trying to ascertain whether she was safe or not (she was; Tree of Life was not her congregation). And as I did that, a little voice in my brain said, “What about now? Still want to convert?” And the immediate answer was, “Absolutely. These are my people.” It took a little longer, but I made it happen, and it still hurts to read about this tragedy. Someone from my congregation lost family because of this shooting. The Jewish community is close-knit and well-connected with each other, and we’re all still feeling this. Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood (Knopf Publishing Group, 2021) is a beautiful testament to the strength of community and how a neighborhood and the greater community can come together in the wake of tragedy.

In the morning of October 27, 2018, a man walked into the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha congregation (which also housed two other congregations, Dor Hadash and New Light Congregation) and gunned down eleven Jews, injuring six more, and traumatizing all the rest. The focus of this book isn’t on what happened during the shooting, but rather, what happened afterwards, because there’s no need to glorify the killer or focus on the line of thinking that brought him to this point. Mark Oppenheimer’s family lived in Squirrel Hill for many generations; it’s a heavily Jewish area that is very close-knit, and the book delves into the beauty of recovery, of neighbors helping neighbors, of the wider world lending a hand and stepping in to help dry the tears of a hurting people.

People traveled from multiple faraway states with therapy dogs, homemade memorials, and more. The local firefighters memorialized one of the victims who always stopped by the firehouse for a chat. People came to prepare food for the victims’ families, borrowing another synagogue’s kitchen to ensure that the food would be kosher. Public art began appearing in support of the local Jewish community, most notably in a Starbucks window, where it can still be viewed today. Not everything was easy to take; a young Black woman expressed distress that when her people are shot and killed, no one shows up like this (and her distress is entirely understandable and this needs to change); just like at Mother Emanuel, the AME church in Charleston where nine Black worshippers were murdered, trauma tourists came by to ogle the site; a local newspaper editor lost his job after his bold decision to use the first few words of the Mourner’s Kaddish (a prayer recited for the dead, which has no mention of death in it) as a headline. But Squirrel Hill is a special place, and the way the community came together after this nightmare will show you exactly how special it is.

It takes a special writer to make me want to pack up and travel anywhere; Maeve Binchy does it with her novels about Ireland, and Mark Oppenheimer has done it with this book. From a terrible, unthinkable crime sprang a community’s love and support, and that’s about the best you can hope for when so many are suffering. He manages to both respect individual grief and trauma while composing a love letter to his ancestral neighborhood, amplifying the good that they shouldn’t have had to engage in but still chose to.

Security has always been tight at all the synagogues I’ve been to; I can imagine that this has only increased worldwide in the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre. Several police officers are on guard outside every service we have; the doors are always locked and you have to be buzzed in (or know the code); if you’re going somewhere new, it’s considered good form to call first and let them know you’re coming, so they’re not alarmed by the presence of a new person at services. It’s an absolute shame, but not surprising, and Squirrel Hill will show you exactly why all of this is necessary.

This is a sad, but lovely book, one that I highly recommend.

Visit Mark Oppenheimer’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

One thought on “Book Review: Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood by Mark Oppenheimer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s