On October 27, 2018, eleven congregants were shot and killed by an antisemitic, anti-immigrant white supremacist at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Beth Kissileff, a Jewish thinker and author, and Eric Lidji, an archivist and historian of western Pennsylvanian Jewish life, approached a number of individuals—Jews and non-Jews, native Pittsburghers and “transplants,” journalists and academics—about writing their own reflections on this tragedy as well as editing the essays and poetry of twenty-two others. .The volume was produced to mark the second Yahrzeit (the annual commemoration of the death of a loved one) of the eleven victims. The title refers to a line from the memorial prayer for martyrs: “…Master of Mercy! Cover them in the cover of His Wings forever, and Bind their souls with the binding of life…”
Several of the contributors refer to the Squirrel Hill eruv, the relatively invisible boundary that surrounds the neighborhood where the synagogue is located. This Halachic contrivance, often made of string wrapped around existing utility poles, defines what it encloses as a single domain, and is symbolically taken by observant Jews to represent home and safety. The overall, disconcerting impression that their home has been violated by the intrusion of horrific violence has left a number of the writers feeling a deep, personal loss.
Kissileff, in her essay, “Honey from the Carcass,” offers a biblical image to describe her feelings following the Tree of Life shootings. She notes that one of the things that happened to Samson in Judges 14 is his noticing that a swarm of bees had inhabited the carcass of a lion that he had killed earlier, and the bees had produced honey. Samson not only proceeded to eat and share with his parents some of the honey, but the incident formed the basis of a riddle that Samson subsequently presented to the Philistines: “…Out of the eater came forth food, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” Kissileff maintains that similarly, as difficult as the events at Tree of Life are to understand, we should seek out redeeming, comforting aspects of such a situation as well.
A number of the essayists marveled at the support that the entire Pittsburgh community, comprising various religious and political groups, offered by creating a memorial to the victims as well as providing financial and social support.
While the newspaper columnist Tony Norman, in “I Read Somewhere that Pittsburgh is Stronger than Hate,” and several other contributors, document a disturbing number of murders and racist incidents in the Pittsburgh area over the years, Norman hopes that the positive and constructive reaction that the tragedy has elicited will help every community “begin a serious dialogue about how to deal with the haters who live among us and who have been normalized by our indifference.”
It would be reassuring if Pittsburgh ended up serving as a catalyst for a general American reassessment of such issues.