By Barbara Jean Heller
Pittsburgh, my home, has been shot in the heart.
On Shabbat morning of October 27, a man walked into a synagogue open to all who would enter. The man, twisted with hate, raised a semi-automatic rifle toward the congregation deep in prayer and squeezed the trigger. People screamed and wailed and ran crazy in all directions — the sturdy ninety-seven year old Rose Mallinger, the beloved Rosenthal brothers, Bernice and Sylvan Simon. When the ear shattering barrage of bullets ceased eleven people lay dead on the well-worn carpeted floor of the Tree of Life synagogue, their sacred house of worship and the man walked out the door. Shema Yisrael!
And the people heard and came from the surrounding streets and cried. And people from beyond that Jewish community of Squirrel Hill heard, people from East End and Mt. Lebanon. The reporters came and the TV cameras. And this horrific act shocked the people from Long Island and Cherry Hill and Florida and California. And the peoples in the broader world heard. And we all wept and sobbed and our tears formed a new sad river for this gentle city. And we were beyond tears.
But what of Squirrel Hill?
I grew up in East End, a section composed of little homes and small businesses that depended on streetcars for transportation. The Jewish community was an active one. Within a few blocks on Negley Avenue you could find the stately B’nai Israel Synagogue where I was confirmed and married. Further down the street was the Orthodox synagogue where my B’nai Brith Girls group met in the basement each Wednesday evening. And dotting the street were two small ultra-orthodox shuls that had been converted from homes. I used to walk my Zayde home from one of them.
Growing up, we East End kids made snide remarks about Squirrel Hill, calling it the Gilded Ghetto because of the preponderance of wealthy Jewish families who lived there. But in truth, we knew it was the heart of the city’s Jewish community and its richness was reflected in a bloom of Jewish life. We had a lot of family there. Uncle Louie had a tailor shop on Forbes Street. Aunt Pearl and Uncle Joe served Thanksgiving dinner every year in their home on Bartlett Street. Both Uncle Irving and Uncle Al lived on Beechwood Boulevard where I had sleepovers with my cousin Faye Ellen.
Murray Avenue was the hub, the Jewish food capital of Pittsburgh. It was there you would come to savor real kishke and kneidlach in Weinstein’s Restaurant. Only on the Avenue could you find a bakery that made corn bread with a good crust. Smallman’s was the place for gigantic pastrami sandwiches served with a fat kosher pickle. Mini-skirted girls and babushked bubbes would meet at the checkout line at the Giant Eagle where the deli counter had a separate case full of kosher prepared foods.
On Murray Avenue, on the second floor of the building that housed the Manor movie theater, were the two small offices and a bathroom of the B’nai Brith Youth Organization, a gathering place of gangling adolescent Jewish kids, the Petri dish that grew us into functional young adults.
Yes, and what of Squirrel Hill now? Murray Avenue will still look the same. The BBYO office is still there and the people will continue to go to the Manor and shop at the Giant Eagle and buy pastrami sandwiches at Smallman’s. With our prayers, skilled medical expertise will heal the bodies of the six wounded. The community lives on.
Next Shabbat, the faithful will gather for services at Tree of Life and Rodef Shalom and the other synagogues in Squirrel Hill. But during this week of October 27th, they will gather too, day after day at Ralph Schugar’s Funeral Chapel to mourn two or seven or all eleven of the victims of this massacre. And a pall will settle over the community that will, in time fade but never be gone completely. And Jews in Squirrel Hill and East End and around these United States will be looking over their shoulders with a fleeting thought of Kristallnacht because they could not image that what had happened to the Jews in Germany eighty years ago could ever happen in America. It happened. Gevalt!!!
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu…
Editor’s Note: Barbara Jean Heller is a contributing writer to the Mountain News. Although she grew up in Pittsburgh, she is currently the past president of her Kehillath Shalom congregation in New York.
~ Barbara Jean Heller