Op-Ed: A secular prayer for my neighbors in Squirrel Hill

Mourners attend a vigil for the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue mass shooting on Oct. 28 in the Squirrel Hill area of Pittsburgh.
(Michael M. Santiago / Associated Press)

My wife, Yana, and I moved to the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill from Paris in the fall of 2015. Technically we are Jewish, but the only thing we did religiously up to that point was eat smoked fish. We never went to synagogue and had not been bar or bat mitzvahed. I’m not sure we had any idea of what being Jewish meant.

We rented our house sight unseen. We didn’t even realize Squirrel Hill was a Jewish enclave until we met our first Orthodox neighbor, Rochel, a hippie-ish mother of three who swept up her chestnut hair in fluorescent headscarves. “Welcome to the shtetl!” she said, and invited us to our first Pittsburgh Shabbat dinner.

That November, in our new kitchen, Yana and I watched the news as the attacks unfolded in Paris. We felt a mixture of grief and relief, wanting to return in solidarity to a city that had become a second home, but also grateful that we had landed in a place that seemed so removed from international terrorism, so safe, particularly for Jews. “If you’re frum,” one neighbor told us, using the Yiddish word for observant, “Pittsburgh is paradise.”


I had always deluded myself into believing that being Jewish was an option, like being an occasional vegetarian, something I could switch on or off.

At our next Shabbat dinner, I was talking to my new friend Sruli, who lived two doors down. He plays harmonica in a Jewish-flavored funk band — yes, such things exist here. I asked if he had ever been to France. “I don’t think they’d like me over there,” he said.

“Why not?”

He grabbed his orange beard and gestured to his yarmulke. “Because of this, dude.”

The Shabbat invitations kept coming. We laughed when our neighbors showed up on our doorstep with a ram’s horn to blow or palm fronds to shake, the rites of different holidays. We marveled at their numerous children, how joyfully they lost themselves in the minutiae of their faith, how generous they were with food and gifts, though none of them were wealthy.

Soon other sides of the community came into view. On Saturday afternoon runs, we’d pass Orthodox boys coming home from shul with their starter-set earlocks, shirts untucked and broad-brimmed hats nattily tipped to the side. We’d see Conservative Jews, fathers and daughters, walking to synagogue in modern suits and fancy dresses. And we’d see Reform and secular Jews buying challah from the artisan bakery, Five Points, rather than the kosher supermarket.

Our next-door neighbor happened to be a rabbi who moonlights as an IT guy. Or vice versa. Izzy, short for Yisroel, is an extremely charming man, with a giant gray beard, who dresses in a chic remix of Ellis Island immigrant garb, including suspenders and a newsboy cap. One day he knocked on our door, garden shears in hand. He wanted to cut a hedge that was spilling from our yard into his. Also, he said, “I lost my father.”

He delivered the news without sentimentality. There was protocol to fall back on: the shiva (the first seven days of mourning) and the shloshim (the extended grieving period); and preparations would need to be accelerated because of the onset of Sukkot, the harvest celebration. There was also a bris, the ritual circumcision, for yet another grandson. He set to work on the hedge.

Yana and I often talked about how unlike ourselves these Jews seemed — as if they stepped out of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. Then came a night last year, when my wife’s mother was very sick — her oncologist had told us the worst possible news — and my father-in-law begged us to ask Izzy the rabbi/IT guy to say a prayer for her.

“Seriously?” I asked Yana. We felt awkward; we had kept the illness private. Yana knocked on the door. I stood behind her.

Izzy was asleep. His wife, Karen, mother of 10, born in South Africa, answered. Again, no sentimentality — just kindness. “What’s your mother’s Hebrew name?” she asked.

We told her that Yana’s mother had no Hebrew name, that she had been born in Soviet Ukraine, where Judaism was all but banned. Karen nodded. She promised that Izzy would say a prayer the following day. I’m not sure what, but that meant something to my father-in-law. It meant something to us, too.

Since the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday morning, I’ve been wanting to say a prayer for my Jewish friends in Pittsburgh. Such prayers are hurled about the internet with alarming facility, but I don’t really believe in God, and I don’t know how to invoke a negative space.

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Without prayers, all I have are thoughts. I’ve lately been thinking about the different kinds of Judaism: my kind, Izzy and Karen’s kind; the mystical, Klezmer-playing Sruli’s kind; the kind practiced by the 11 murdered at Tree of Life; the kind embraced by the Reform families who get their challah from the hipster bakeshop, which is just down the street from that synagogue where so much is now broken. I want to believe there is something more than a painful history uniting us, something more than a genetic marker and the possibility of wandering into the crosshairs of some maniac’s gun.

I’ve also, curiously, been thinking about former New York Mayor Ed Koch’s tombstone, how he inscribed it with Daniel Pearl’s dying words: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”

What a strange thing to put on your grave, I once thought, so intense, so tribal. But now I understand better. I had always deluded myself into believing that being Jewish was an option, like being an occasional vegetarian, something I could switch on or off, depending on the situation. The closer the attacks come, the less I feel that way.

Pearl affirmed his identity in the face of unspeakable hatred. I don’t have that kind of courage, but I suspect the people of Squirrel Hill do. As for the other stuff that will keep us together, the open doors and shared meals? That’s just neighborliness, which has no religious affiliation, and at certain moments can feel a lot like grace.

Stephen Heyman is a freelance journalist based in Pittsburgh.

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