The Book reflects on the Tree of Life tragedy

The Book has arrived, fresh from the University of Pittsburgh Press. I capitalize it because of its importance: It is the newly published compilation of more than 20 essays and thought pieces by that city’s writers “reflecting on the Tree of Life tragedy.” Those words form the subtitle of The Book, which is formally named “Bound in the Bond of Life.”
Please note: As always in our Judaism, despite this tragedy, this travesty, this horror that is now a permanent part of our collective American Jewish past, the emphasis again remains on Life.
Dallasites will recognize an important local connection: Credited as co-editor of The Book is Eric Lidji, a surname well-known here in the fields of law and design. He has been in Pittsburgh for a goodly number of years now, contributing to its Jewish newspaper, writing books on some of its most interesting Jews, most recently directing the Rauh Jewish Archives in the city’s Heinz History Museum. In his thoughtful introduction, he reminds us that The Book’s title comes first from the Biblical Book of Samuel, later to be incorporated as we know it today in our liturgy of mourning.
The two dozen essays of reflection are as different as their authors. Most refer first to their Pittsburgh histories: how and when and why they — or their families before them — came to live in this city, many in the residential area called Squirrel Hill, known for years that have merged into generations as predominantly Jewish. The first is by Molly Pascal, a Tree of Life member who describes it as “an urban shtetl: 13 congregations of four denominations in 2 square miles…In Squirrel Hill, you are always someone’s granddaughter or grandson, son or daughter, mother or father, cousin, co-worker, doctor, neighbor, or friend…”
Andrew Goldstein, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writer, calls Jewish life there “natural to the neighborhood…massive synagogues fit into the landscape as though they were part of the hills they were built on…,” and notes the succinct Oct. 28 sign on the door of Pinsker’s, the beloved Judaica shop on Murray Avenue, a main commercial thoroughfare: “Closed Because of Yesterday.”
As I read, I walk again the streets of my childhood, singing under my breath what we sang together in summer camp as we entered the dining hall for our Shabbat meal, all garbed in pristine white: “Come, O Sabbath day, and bring…Peace and healing on thy wing…” And I read what a child of today reminds her rabbi father that he himself had taught her: The names of all our martyrs are written on the robes of the Almighty…
The song continues to echo: “…And to every troubled breast, speak of the Divine behest: Thou Shalt Rest…” So I must think now of the 11 who, beginning on Oct. 27 two years ago, were sent to rest forever, having been forced to trade their last, promised, unfulfilled Sabbath for an all-time final one.
The tragedy has changed Pittsburgh somewhat, but in most ways, both the city and its Jewish neighborhood are the same. One block from the high school we all attended, the corner (once marked by a major pharmacy above which were offices including that of my doctor father) has been razed for new construction. But one block in another direction stands what was once a large Catholic church and school, for years now converted to my city’s largest Jewish day school, and the site of Pittsburgh’s iconic Holocaust Memorial: a walk-through construction of glass blocks, each containing pop-tops from beverage cans (because those made their debut in Pittsburgh), all adding up to 6 million, an idea of students to connect their city with a much earlier, much larger horror than the more recent one they — so sadly — have since come to know firsthand.
The Book is now a fitting memorial to the latter. May it be well and thoughtfully read and treasured by many as the true, living Tree of Life it itself is.

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