Scoundrel Time

The Pittsburgh Massacre and its Aftermath: A Witness to the Witnesses

Whenever I’m struggling to enter deeply into the mind of a fictional character, I’ll ask myself:  What is it that this character doesn’t want to know about him or herself? What feeling is she keeping at a distance or trying to avoid? Those thoughts came to me as I read Bound in the Bond of Life, an anthology edited by Eric Lidji and Beth Kissileff (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020). I had been asked to review it, and the thought filled me with a particular kind of dread.

“Bound in the Bond of Life” focuses on the events of the Pittsburgh massacre. On a Saturday in late October of 2018, Robert G. Bowers posted on the social media website Gab: I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in. He packed his Colt AR assault rifle and three Glocks and drove 11 miles to Squirrel Hill Pittsburgh, with the intention of slaughtering Jews. The site was Tree of Life, a building that contained three congregations. The crime? They had recently hosted Central American refugees for a Shabbat meal.

I remember my husband coming home from shul and saying that the custodian had told the worshippers there had been an attack, a mass shooting in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Since it was our Sabbath, we couldn’t go to the computer and find out more. I didn’t want to find out more. I heard, but I didn’t want to hear. I was aware that something in me was trying to block it out, keep it far away.

It was too scary to contemplate, and way too disorienting. The Pittsburgh massacre went against the Jewish American story I knew from childhood, the America that had welcomed my ancestors from Russia, Poland, England, and Casablanca. Growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, I recall only amity and friendliness those Saturday mornings while walking to synagogue in our Sabbath finery.

What happened in Squirrel Hill was the wrong story, I told myself at the time, a perverse fluke. It didn’t telegraph a sea change in how Americans felt about “their” Jews. There were no Brown Shirts aiding and abetting Robert Bowers. Here, the police risked their lives to save the Jews trapped within. Here, every politician condemned the horrific act. True, weird things happened to Jews from time to time in places like Crown Heights, but nothing on this scale. Whatever had happened was an aberration, a departure from the normal. My mind held onto, no—insisted on this.

Then a new normal unfurled. Of course nothing  compared to the full scale pogroms that ravaged turn-of-the-century Europe, but in the past two years Hassidic Jews were targeted and killed in a Kosher grocery in Jersey City not far from my town; a rabbi was hacked to death by an anti-Semite wielding a machete, a mere two doors down from my sister-in-law’s home in Monsey; an elementary school kid got held down by her classmates who magic-markered her face with a swastika; and visibly Jewish pedestrians were slugged in the street or mowed down by cars. It was occurring so frequently that it hardly merited a mention even in the Jewish newspapers.

The more this new normal intensified, however, the more I tried to write it off. It’s not particular to Jews, I told myself. After all, mass shootings and hate crimes are exploding all over the country. Look what happened in Colorado, Atlanta, Orlando (and by the time of publication, who knows how many other cities will make this awful list.) Don’t make it be only about us, I insisted.

So it was with some trepidation that I sat down and read a collection of essays about the day that Post-Gazette journalist and contributor Tony Norman calls the “biggest loss of Jewish life by domestic terrorism in American history.” I still didn’t want to read it. Also, on a practical note, how does one go about  reviewing such a book? On how well-written it is?  On whether it’s a page-turner?

The book’s emphasis is not on the horrific details of the massacre. It’s not that kind of book. Instead, we are brought into the intimate place of people’s anguish, and what they did with it.

Even still, having read through these 200 pages, I know what happened on October 27:  In my mind’s eye I see the two greeters, Cecil and David Rosenthal, disabled brothers in their fifties, standing at the shul’s entrance to welcome people, when Robert Bowers shoots them with his assault rifle. I see him stepping past their bodies and moving on to the main sanctuary. Maybe he dimly notes that the ceiling needs repair, or that no one here is under the age of sixty, or that the shul isn’t nearly as packed as he’d hoped. (What he doesn’t know is that a youth group that was scheduled to meet that week unexpectedly cancelled.) In fact, in this sanctuary, there are only twelve men and women. He plows through, gunning them down. The assault rifle does its job, shattering several bodies into bits, beyond recognition.  (Contributor Molly Pascal notes there’s a reason family members aren’t allowed to identify their loved ones in person, only through photographs.)

In another room, three men sit at a table, studying the weekly portion, VaYera, which tells the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac. Jerry Rabinowitz is fatally shot while trying to stop the gunfire, and Dan Leger is wounded. Marty Gaynor escapes by fleeing outdoors. In the basement, which houses New Light congregation, Rabbi Jon Perlman and three others are chanting psalms known as Pesukei DeZimra, when they hear shots. The rabbi hustles the three congregants inside a pitch-black electrical closet. I shudder to imagine the worshippers cowering there, hearing the killer knocking about, in search of Jews – them. When the killer finally opens the closet, stares into the dark, astonishingly he sees no one and moves on. An elderly congregant, Mel, hard of hearing, thinks the coast is clear and exits, only to be gunned down. The killer moves on to the kitchen where two worshippers are setting up a little Kiddush repast for after services. Okay, okay. I’ll stop.

It’s enough to know that by the time the killer is done, nearly half of the synagogue’s congregants have been slaughtered. Eleven of twenty-two worshipers dead and six wounded, two worshippers and four policemen.

In these pages, I meet the town of Squirrel Hill—the people who have lived there for generations and those who arrived a few years ago. And I meet one woman who converted to Judaism, Brooke, and her husband, living in Amsterdam, on the verge of moving to their ideal Jewish community—Squirrel Hill. When they hear of the attack  overseas, they cry for the people they will never get to meet. And they move to Squirrel Hill, nonetheless.

From Jonathan Perlman, the quick-thinking rabbi of New Light synagogue who hid worshippers in the electrical closet, comes an elegiac piyut, a kind of prayer-poem-song he wrote with two others that is reminiscent of the Book of Lamentations. It’s majestic and reads like liturgy. I can hear the mournful tune behind the words, even though no tune has yet been composed, because Jews have been singing it for centuries. For the entire year, the names of the eleven slain will be uttered as part of the services in many synagogues throughout Pittsburgh. It seems spiritually fitting that these devoted early shul-risers should be made part of our synagogue prayers.

The rabbi’s wife, Beth Kissileff (the co-editor of this collection and a Torah scholar in her own right), poignantly asks: Why is my family still intact when my husband was in the Tree of Life building and yet survived?  She helps me comprehend how trauma devastates and unmoors her, rendering her mind a manic and chaotic place where no story is allowed to form and settle. That scares me and makes a lot of sense for me as a writer. A story moves from event or scene to scene, and through some mysterious alchemy, the writer finds the thread that runs through, stringing the scenes into a whole. A story, by the very fact of having a beginning, middle and end, offers containment, imposes a logic and structure on a fractured world.  But the traumatized mind—racing here and there, trying to catch its breath and unable to—seems to me a house of horrors.  It is only later, when Beth is able to form a story that coheres and to help others tell their stories, that you feel hope for a little healing.

The next essay I come across reads more like a sermon, and in fact is one. Daniel Yolkut, a rabbi of the Orthodox shul Poalei Zedek in Squirrel Hill, delivered this Shabbat sermon a week after the massacre, prefacing his words with a law: it is forbidden to cry on Shabbat. He is unsure how to proceed, because the words he says will surely make him and maybe others cry. He cites an exception to this law though, provided by the 16th century sage, the Rama. “If the only way to experience the joy of Shabbat is to cry, to release the pain in one’s heart, then it is in fact permitted to weep on Shabbat.”

The rabbi’s words settle me, make me more comfortable with my own dread, anxiety, and tears.

Eric Lidji, the other co-editor, writes in “Processing” how he has assembled nearly 190 boxes of “things that document the impact of those 83 minutes on the Jewish population of Western Pennsylvania.” What are they? Flyers, programs, signs, letters, stones, tea lights, the yellow Post-it notes that visitors had taped to the synagogue’s walls. The matter of fact way he notes “a community produces a lot of documentation as it collectively processes its pain,” belies the anguish you can feel wafting off the page. And then he records the oral histories, which afterwards he can’t stop listening to. His obsession becomes my obsession. I can hardly breathe as I read, because I sense his own constricted breathing.

I read faster, compulsively, as if I need to gulp it down all in one swallow. I discover what people do with their anguish, and believe me, there are so many approaches. Some folks want politics left out of it entirely. They don’t want this horrific massacre to be an opportunity to score political points. Others are catalyzed into activism—whether it’s gun control or fighting the rising hate against vulnerable minorities—by a crime they see as inherently political. One woman finds that the only way she can deal with her paralyzing dread is learning to dance the Argentine tango. In the tango embrace of her partner, she feels safe and held, and learns how to breathe again.

A few note how the assassin not only attacked Jewish people, but their houses of worship, on their Sabbath. To honor the Sabbath, then, becomes for them an act of defiance against the assassin who set out to desecrate their religion. Some commit to more charity or community service, or as one writer puts it, “simply to be a nicer person in my daily life.” Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz’s learning partners pay tribute to him by increasing their Torah study.

Finally I’m done. I put the book down and look around me, blinking, trying to reorient myself to my living room, the chair I’m sitting on, like someone getting off of a ship and trying to get her land legs back. I feel an odd tenderness, a soreness in my chest. The book was more than a powerful read. It insisted that I feel what I didn’t want to, what I tried to blot out. It took me somewhere. I wasn’t in Squirrel Hill on that day in late October. I wasn’t a witness. But through this book, to paraphrase the critic Irving Howe, I became a witness to the witnesses.

My thoughts ping-pong here and there and settle on…Robert Bowers. I’m glad the book didn’t talk much about him. But why am I thinking about Robert Bowers? Let him get thrown into a cement mixer, or at least get shipped off to Devil’s Island! It would be easy to write off Robert Bowers as a racist psychopath, which he most likely is. But surely there are levels, degrees of “Robert Bowers” embedded in our neighborhoods who have not yet crossed to the other side of hell.  Certainly in such a wealthy country as our own resources could be allocated to find a way to reach them. It’s not compassion toward these potential killers that motivates me, but compassion for ourselves and our communities. We ignore these men at our own peril.

I must end with Molly Pascal. She writes about attending a family Bar Mitzvah a year after the massacre, not at her old synagogue, but at a different one, yet still surrounded by survivors and families of victims. Her heart is still cracked. When the rabbi makes a l’chaim, the traditional toast “to life,” she and her special circle reply “l’chaim”: “We shout the words, for they are not only a hope; they are a scream, a scar, a blessing, and a command. We drink three more.”

Please God, l’chaim.



Ruchama Feuerman is the author of the novels Seven Blessings (St. Martin’s Press), and In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (New York Review Books), as well as books for children and young adults. Her short stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine, the Michigan Quarterly Review, Lilith, Tablet, Moment, and other publications.

She has written — and ghostwritten — books for children, young adults, and adults, and helps people create their own novels, memoirs, stories, and books of nonfiction.





Image By: