Bound in the Bond of Life: Pitts­burgh Writ­ers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy

Beth Kissileff and Eric Lid­ji (eds.)

  • Review
By – January 4, 2021

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 indi­vid­u­alsJews and non-Jews, native Pitts­burghers and trans­plants,” jour­nal­ists and aca­d­e­micsabout 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.

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions