Despite centuries of persecution, some people still feel entitled to ask "What should be done with the Jews"?
Another day, another antisemitic attack. Once again it was on a Saturday, and once again it happened in a synagogue. The kidnapping in Colesville, Texas, on January 15, 2022, was just another sequel to the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that took place three years earlier, on October 27, 2018.
It was certainly déjà vu for Hannah Lebovitz, an orthodox Jewish mother of two, professor at the University of Texas, and native of Squirrel Hill now living close to Colesville. She tried to articulate the feeling: “What we experience isn’t just a run-of-the-mill tragedy,” she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on January 18. “We are being attacked. It’s an attack on our identity and our sense of cohesion, security and safety.” And then she added: “I really do feel we’re not giving enough attention to Jewish identity as a state of embodiment. . . . It really involves your whole being, and attacks on Judaism make you feel violated.”
She wasn’t using “identity” in the woke sense, the virtue-signaling kind conveyed through bumper stickers or accessories. And security wasn’t just physical, it was about one’s whole being, one’s sense of cohesion, community, spiritual integrity, the self—the soul. She didn’t have to say the word; though relegated mostly to sermons that are expected to engage in anachronistic flourishes to facilitate introspection, the soul by any other name is still as relevant as ever.
To learn about another’s sense of self takes time. It also takes effort and insight, to understand the way people affect one another. Fortunately, it was Mark Oppenheimer who took the time and made the effort. Given both his literary talents and scholarly background—professor of journalism and religion, former religion columnist for the New York Times, author of five prior books including Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture, host of Tablet magazine’s podcast “Unorthodox,” and head of the Yale Journalism Initiative—his book Squirrel Hill had to be good, and it is. Its subtitle, The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood, shows that he knew his real task. For neighborhoods do indeed have souls, just like individuals, countries, and civilizations. And all souls can be misplaced, squandered, forgotten, even lost. Squirrel Hill, moreover, wasn’t just any place: for his family, it had long been home.
A 21st-century American-Jewish Odysseus returning to his Penelope-Pittsburgh, Oppenheimer had many questions—as a native, a Jew, an American. Because what happens to the Jews never ends with the Jews; the perennial scapegoat, they are also the perennial canary.
For instance: “Would it help people’s recovery that the victims, many of their relatives, and those who survived the attack all belonged to houses of worship? What about faith in God, for those who had it? And what about the neighborhood’s longevity—how much did it matter that Jews had been here for a century, and that many of these Jews today were third- or fourth-generation residents?”
What follows is a remarkable series of vignettes that recall Dora Horn’s brilliant insight into the Yiddish literary tradition: it’s the flow that counts. The moral of the story is the story—as in the Bible, to tell is to show. In the same way, Squirrel Hill is epic, episodic, and a bit ambiguous. The narrator is at once participant and spectator, empathetic yet an observer. He is respectful of the complexity, but almost to excess: in the end, he seems reluctant to quite answer his own questions. Not that they don’t matter to him.
For Pittsburgh is where Oppenheimer’s American family saga began back in the 1840s. His great-great-great-grandfather, William Frank, had been one of four Jews who founded the first Jewish burial society, not just there but in the United States. They were lucky to leave Germany, where hatred of Jews was becoming increasingly prominent, especially in socialist circles. In 1843, Karl Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” had declared “The God of the Jew is money.” The road to Hitler, Stalin, and serfdom was being paved with hate.
In America meanwhile, by the time of the Great War, Jews were thriving. And after 1945, Oppenheimer’s father could boast that “his Squirrel Hill was a little Jewish Eden.” The usual inter-tribal squabbles, like the fancy German Jews looking down on more ragged recent arrivals from Eastern Europe, were trivial. Oppenheimer observes, bitterly: “The gunman who at Tree of Life perpetrated the greatest antisemitic attack in American history surely did not know that he was attacking the oldest, most stable, most internally diverse Jewish neighborhood in the United States.” Diverse economically, religiously, ethnically, Jews also had warm relations with their non-Jewish neighbors. So “if mass murder had to come, there was probably no place in America better positioned to endure it.”
How did America do? How had Oppenheimer found his community? Had it disappointed him in any way, asked an interviewer. His reply, shortly after the book’s release, was a laconic “not at all.” What he does regret is that some people will come to associate Pittsburgh with violence; for “the city itself and its neighborhoods are as wonderful as ever.”
Or almost. Unfortunately, three years later, the synagogue is still fenced off. This didn’t surprise the local rabbi who told Oppenheimer: “Tree of Life members will do everything for the 11 dead except show up in their place.” Already tiny, the synagogue would likely wither. Its rabbi, Hazzan Jeffrey Meyers saw little point in restoration: “if so many of our members find no value entering the Tree other than as submariner Jews,” meaning the fair-weather types, why bother? Especially since antisemitism keeps rising—certainly globally, but also in America.
According to a recent survey by the American Jewish Committee released in November 2021, about 25% of American Jews have experienced some form of antisemitism, and a staggering 40% have changed their behavior out of fear of being targeted. In his recent Wall Street Journal article, Oppenheimer explains that the greatest danger is faced by “the shrinking minority of Jews who regularly do Jewish things in Jewish spaces—go to synagogue, for example, or shop at kosher markets.”
Fortunately, in his view, this should prevent the overhasty conclusion “that we [Jews] are simply never safe, not even in a country as good for the Jews as the U.S. has been.” Instead, Oppenheimer celebrates the fact that “[i]n the past quarter-century, most American Jews have become almost completely liberated from the effects of anti-Jewish bias in school, work, social life, housing and even romance,” with the result that “liberated Jews are abandoning Jewish spaces. Only a fifth of Jews attend worship services at least monthly, and only 12% weekly. . . . Between 2013 and 2020, a Pew survey found, the number of Jews fasting for Yom Kippur fell 7%. Fewer Jews than ever keep kosher homes.”
But wait: are Jews abandoning Jewish spaces because of liberation, or was that its price? Are they “liberated” from attending services, and from fasting on the Holiest Day? A pre-teen might agree; but to me, it’s reminiscent of the “liberation” the USSR boasted to have brought to my native Romania, which my parents subsequently tried leaving for about 17 years.
If pressures to assimilate have “liberated” those for whom rituals had become increasingly less meaningful, the added risk of terrorism offers another excuse to avoid them. Why take unnecessary risks when, even without many of the old practices, Judaism in America is alive and well? “Plenty of Jews who don’t typically enter Jewish spaces are nevertheless deeply involved in Jewish culture, either as consumers or producers,” Oppenheimer reassures them. He cites as examples the Jewish chef in his restaurant and the Judaica scholar in her secular university office, among others. To the retort that Jewish restaurants are also targets, and any Judaica scholar who wears her Zionism on any of her sleeves may be out of a job, or worse, there is a tried-and-true answer: so what’s a little compromise?
Is that not the secret of our survival? “Throughout history, our communities have comprised the pious and the heretical, the observant and the indifferent. So it is now, and so it shall be,” writes Oppenheimer. “The number of Americans who identify as Jewish appears to be holding steady as a percentage of the national population, and as DNA tests reveal Jewish roots to more people every day, a growing number of Americans will perceive violent attacks on Jews as an attack on them—on ‘us.’”
But since when is Judaism a function of DNA? We’re not talking about racial identity here; a Jew is not the sum of his genes, any more than is an American, native or otherwise. Or anyone else. As to the claim that discovering Jewish genes on Ancestry.com leads to philo-semitism, it is as evidence-free as the sanguine prediction that “[t]he Jews at risk of anti-Semitic attack will include the small but growing number whose clothes make them targets, like many Orthodox, including Hasidim.” Why can’t people make better sartorial choices? Such stubborn people: “[O]f course, there will be those eccentric holdouts: Jews who continue to enter places like synagogues, having decided that praying with fellow Jews is worth the risk of dying with them.”
It is a sad conclusion to an odyssey that he had wanted so much to turn out positive, for all the right reasons: Oppenheimer loves his people, his country, his ancestors’ caring and happy community. But calling those who continue to enter places like synagogues “eccentric,” while etymologically accurate, for they are indeed off-center, is unfairly pejorative. True, they refuse to be “liberated” from the choice to pray alongside others who may well be killed for wearing the wrong clothes or praying in the wrong temples. But when does the risk of not being thus eccentric become too great?
This is not a question Oppenheimer chooses to answer, at least not directly. He gives the last word to a radical young Jewish woman: “If the thing we are best at in Pittsburgh is keeping the community together and looking out for each other, then that is the best of what we accomplished in that first year. But as Jews, that’s not the best we’re called to be.” What she advocates is radicalism and anti-racism. Her own answer is to join the social justice group called Bend the Arc: Jewish Action (BAJA).
Jewish action is not at all a bad idea, especially once it is clear what action is most appropriate, depending on the circumstances. Many such crimes are politically motivated, though not along simplistic categories, especially when the perpetrator is semi-literate or mentally ill or both. But BAJA’s Pittsburgh chapter “basically existed to fight Donald Trump. And Trump, its members felt, had to answer for the Tree of Life shooting,” according to the young woman. Thus it seems that what the organization’s members felt about politics took precedence over whatever deeper research might reveal.
But is that really “the best we’re called to be”? It is one thing to oppose Trump; there may be plenty of reasons. On the other hand, if you are serious about understanding the motives of terrorists, shouldn’t you do your homework? Antisemitic attacks have many causes. Facts are out there, if anyone is interested.
Not BAJA, apparently, and not Oppenheimer, who contemptuously dismisses “the alleged killer, who apparently had spent his recent life in the ugliest depths of the racist internet. He did not interest me.” This is not a little astonishing. For contempt the killer fully deserves, and far more (his trial date has yet to be set; it seems he will be pleading insanity to avoid the death penalty). But to paraphrase Trotsky’s retort to the pacifist uninterested in war, that killer and too many others are very much interested in you—in your country and mine, in your family and those of all Americans, destroying our souls. We cannot afford to not understand our enemies, who believe that some lives matter while others do not, lest civilization should come to an end.
One doesn’t need the Torah to understand that. Although it helps.