Reflections on the Mass Murder in Pittsburgh

A 97-year-old woman, an infant, and the Tree of Life.

Posted Oct 28, 2018

When news broke yesterday that a mass murder occurred during a baby naming ceremony at a synagogue, my mind immediately went to thinking about if perhaps that baby and his or her parents were killed along with other babies and children. And then today’s news revealed the too long list of the names and ages of those who were murdered. No babies and no children. Instead, most of the victims had lived at least, if not much more than, half their lives with the oldest victim being 97 years old. You might say phew, at least it wasn’t a life cut so short. Or on the other hand, you might not be able to shake that someone could live so long only to be murdered in the end because of their religion, in a country founded on the idea of religious freedom. 

Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.
Source: Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.

All day I have found myself obsessed with the fact that a 97-year-old woman died of virulent anti-Semitism at a place named of all things the Tree of Life. And I have been similarly obsessed with what it means to be eight days old (assuming that if this was indeed a bris it took place eight days after this infant’s birth in keeping with the Jewish tradition) and welcomed into the world amidst rituals, blessings, prayers and rich, longstanding traditions--- just as 11 others are being murdered for what that all represents to this community. I keep wondering how this child will eventually learn of the events of this day that were about honoring him. Do parents tell children, “On the day that we all gathered to celebrate you and life in our family’s synagogue, a violent man barged into the services to try to kill all of us because we’re Jewish.”

This is what I see: death caused by hate. Being born amidst this much hate. A resilient tree of life shaking in a damaged, ravaged landscape scorched by hate. 

This morning, I sat on the couch talking with my partner feeling pretty hopeless and helpless. Mainly because nothing seems to serve as a necessary wake-up call in what feels like a very broken society. No group seems immune; no place seems immune. I turned to my partner and said what might be the most morbid thing I have ever uttered---that maybe the only thing we have not seen that might have the potential to incite change in lawmakers is dozens of babies murdered in a hospital nursery. Because newborn babies would garner more sympathy than Jews and blacks and other vilified groups.  The mind can go to terrible places when it hears of, and is asked to hold, so much horror. 

An old high school friend from Cleveland posted on Facebook about how what happened yesterday in Pittsburgh is no more tragic or significant than any of the other hateful murders based on limited notions of race and ethnicity, but as a Jewish man, he admitted it felt more identifiable. With his son now going to temple more regularly for the Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations of his friends, my friend felt more vulnerable. 

I get that. I was born into a Jewish family. We had family friends who escaped the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. My mother has another dear friend who lost her mother in the Holocaust. My ex-husband’s uncle had part of his neck removed by Nazis. He was a lovely, smiling man whose deformity reminded me of how grotesque hatred can be. 

I have been to Holocaust museums and memorials and to Anne Frank’s house when I was in Amsterdam, and yet that much destruction and hate can start to almost feel abstract. Until it doesn’t and until it can’t. Until weekends like this when it is perfectly clear that there are people walking around who want people like me to die. Simply because we are Jewish. 

When I am asked to identify my religion I tend to say I was born into a Jewish family, have been unaffiliated, do not attend a temple, went to one for a couple years as a kid until I told my parents a few months before my scheduled bat mitzvah that I did not want one and that they should spend their membership dues on something else, and that while I feel no connection to religion or what many people call God, I feel cultural ties to being Jewish----something that many less observant and non-religious Jews know well as a distinction but that can be harder to explain to our Christian friends since our whole culture is so saturated in Christianity. 

When I have lived in geographical areas with a strong Jewish community, or when I was in my doctoral program at Brandeis University, the fact that I was born a Jew and identify with it as I do was nothing to explain. But when I lived in Texas and now that I live in South Carolina, I find myself more interested in claiming my birthright or at least reminding people that there are things other than Christianity in the world. At the university where I am a professor, I am one of maybe two people who work here who are Jewish, and in six years, I think I have had two Jewish students total even though I have taught well over 1000 students here. I even have students who claim to have never met Jews. That is okay as long as they leave class with me understanding something about the dynamics of oppression, privilege, social justice and human rights. 

All this reminds me of an incredible poem by Pat Parker titled “For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend” in which she states: “The first thing you do is to forget that I'm black. Second, you must never forget that I'm black.” Substitute Jewish for black and you get how I live my life. 

I know that it is the aspects of our identities where we might have experienced the pain of oppression and erasure that makes us most concerned with claiming those aspects, naming them, deriving a sense of pride and resisting invisibility and marginalization. This is often the case for those who identify as LGBTQ, disabled, poor, etc. When there are people hellbent on holding us down and making us extinct, it makes sense that we would want to hold tight and cherish that part of who we are and make it visible and real and therefore more human. 

Now more than ever, our nation would benefit from the teachings of the Jewish community by engaging in tikkun olam, a Hebrew expression for repairing and healing the world.

We who occupy places in oppressed groups are our own trees of life, bending in the wind but not breaking, showing flexible strength. A tree of life is about connection, unity and a way to live in harmony with the rest of the world. May that little boy being named and honored in that Pittsburgh synagogue take the roots that have been planted by those oldest members and grow the tree.