(Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle via JTA) – Mark Oppenheimer’s new book, “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood,” chronicles the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history at through interviews with those affected – both directly and tangentially – by the shooting, while examining the effects of the event on Squirrel Hill, the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Pittsburgh where Tree of Life is located.
The author’s Jewish roots in Pittsburgh stretch back several generations. His great-great-great-grandfather co-founded the first Jewish funeral society in Pittsburgh, and his father grew up on Aylesboro Avenue in downtown Squirrel Hill.
While writing his book, Oppenheimer visited the city 32 times, interviewed around 250 people, and had contact with relatives of eight of the 11 people who were murdered that day. He also relied heavily on various reports, including several published in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.
Oppenheimer is the host of Tablet magazine’s podcast “Unorthodox, ” and is the author of five books, including “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture” and “The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia”. He was a religious columnist for the New York Times from 2010 to 2016.
Oppenheimer had a virtual conversation with the Chronicle to discuss the book ahead of its release. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle: Why did you decide to write this book now?
Oppenheimer: I’ve always been curious about Squirrel Hill. On the morning of the shooting, I was at a bat mitzvah in Newton, Massachusetts with my oldest daughter. We had left our phones in the car until after lunch. We got back to our car, I opened my phone and got a ton of messages. “Is everyone safe in Pittsburgh?” Are you going to Pittsburgh? Did you know anyone in Pittsburgh? Then I looked at my news app and saw that there had been a shooting at a synagogue in Squirrel Hill. It immediately registered as the neighborhood where my father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all lived.
My father was a fifth generation Pittsburgh resident and his family moved to Squirrel Hill around the time when Jews settled there around WWI. I was afraid for the community. I felt a connection with the community.
To be clear, I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, but I knew, as a historian of American religion, that Squirrel Hill had a special place in the annals of American Jewish history as an extremely ancient Jewish community. and extremely stable, having been substantially Jewish for about 100 years. The irony that this terrible attack would befall this community that was so special to American Jews felt like it called for further exploration. I was also curious to know how a community that has so many advantages in terms of stability, in terms of having multigenerational families, in terms of the possibility of walking, of good urban life, of local institutions, of schools, synagogues, churches, shopping districts, how can that be resilient in the face of something terrible.
What does the community mean to you and has that changed because of the shooting?
My father had this wonderful, idyllic childhood in a community where it was safe, where people cared for each other, where there were Jews of all kinds, from the most secular to the most Orthodox, and where people lived in the world. pretty happy background. I also knew that Pittsburgh was a good city to be Jewish, that anti-Semitism is quite low, that it is a city of ethnic neighborhoods and that people respect different ethnicities. I knew it as a special place. I don’t think the shoot changed what that meant to me at all. I feel bad for the people of Pittsburgh that now some people think of an act of violence when they think of Pittsburgh, but the city itself and its neighborhoods are still wonderful as ever. I don’t think the shooter changed that.
Who did you write the book for?
I always write for the public. I always write with the hope that anyone who is curious about human beings and anyone who wants to read something interesting will find it in my work. I think the book will be of interest to Jews, but it is not intended only for Jews at all. I think it is for anyone who is curious about the human experience and how people cope with difficult times. That said, the book is not strictly a Jewish book, nor is it strictly a Squirrel Hill or Pittsburgh book. It seems to encapsulate everyone and everything.
Since you don’t live in the neighborhood, why did you think you were the right person to write this book?
I think there are a lot of good people to write about everything. There should be several books on all aspects of the human experience. My book is the third book that substantially touches on this shoot. I am not a Pittsburgher, I am a journalist. Journalists should go wherever their curiosity takes them, and they should report what they find in the most truthful and empathetic way possible.
You named the shooter in the book. Many in the local media, including the Chronicle, will not. Why did you make this decision?
As a writer for posterity, I have no choice. Imagine if all the books on the set of Tree of Life didn’t name the shooter. How would we study the shooting, how would we get an accurate account of this heinous, anti-Semitic and fanatic terrorist act? We need the names of historical Nazis, historical racists, historical anti-Semites, historical terrorists. These are crucial to the public record. I didn’t feel like I had a choice.
One of the points you make is that there is a cottage industry built around every mass shooting, but aren’t books like this part of that industry?
This is an excellent question. It’s hard to think that my book and the other two that have come out over the past three years represent an industry. It is certainly true that journalists covering sad events face the irony of making a living writing about sad events. There is no way around it. Journalism on sad events and destructive human behavior should take place. It should be a profession of people who do their best to be ethical and competent. You wouldn’t want this to be done only by volunteers or only by people who have experienced it. We are often paid to investigate the misfortune of others. And that doesn’t always feel right. But I think it’s important work, especially in a free society.
What lessons did you learn from writing the book?
Squirrel Hill reminded me of something other reporting had led me to believe: Most people thrive and flourish best when they live in relatively dense, easy-to-walk neighborhoods. For most people, it’s a better way to live. And that if bad things happen to them, they will be grateful for the closeness of their friends and neighbors.
This interview originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.