Saturday, November 3, 2018

What Does It Mean to be a Pittsburgh Jew?


Jeff—Saturday

I’ve thought about that question quite a bit this week in the wake of last Saturday’s massacre of eleven elderly and disabled Jews in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  


Each of my grandparents immigrated to the US from Europe around the turn of the twentieth century and settled in Pittsburgh. My parents grew up there, and my two brothers and I were raised in its neighborhoods

My mother came from the predominantly non-Jewish neighborhood of Dormont, my father was a product of Pittsburgh’s vibrant equivalent of New York City’s Lower East Side.  His neighborhood is where August Wilson set his plays and the building in which he placed them sat behind my great aunt Bella Siger’s grocery store on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District.




The Hill District is a distinctly different neighborhood from Squirrel Hill, but I think few would disagree that descendants of the Jewish immigrants who once called the Hill District home consider Squirrel Hill its spiritual successor.  I know that I always have.

I was raised in another part of town, away from those neighborhoods, amid a community so dominated by Catholics and Protestants that my brothers and I were virtually the only Jewish boys within a quarter-mile radius of our home. We observed Orthodox traditions and were the only Jews who played in neighborhood pickup games, the only Jews in our local Boy Scout troop, and the only Jews I knew of who were reminded by our non-Jewish buddies that we weren’t allowed to eat their Easter candy, because it wasn’t Kosher for Passover.

Morningside is at top framed in red, Squirrel Hill is four neighborhood to its south, and The Hill District is between them off to the west.

It was a gloriously ecumenical way to grow up.

In that Morningside neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s East End, I acquired my values, learned how to interact with people of different faiths and backgrounds, to see folk for what they are as human beings, and to go with my instincts.

 



Yes, I had my share of fistfights in the neighborhood. Some would say more than my share, but they always had a purpose, and with two exceptions, not one had to do with my faith.  My first anti-Semitic experience was when I was nine or so heading home from school for lunch.  I took the same alley I always did, but this time I was jumped by a gang of older boys from a sectarian school who dragged me into a garage, and held me down as they burned my chin with matches, calling me a “Christ Killer.”

Have I forgotten that experience? Never, but not for the reason you might think.

Later that day I told some older friends who went to the same sectarian school as my attackers what had happened.  The next thing I knew they’d swept me along in a wave toward where they knew my attackers hung out.  We found them and promptly beat the hell out of them.

My elementary school

As politically incorrect as that response may be viewed today, my friends taught me a lesson that’s shaped who I am: It’s not hateful principles of faith that attacked me, but hateful people. Never confuse the two.

The second experience was more complex.  I was twelve and playing baseball on the neighborhood’s ball field when out of nowhere a learning-disabled, powerful man twice my age came at me shouting similar anti-Semitic slogans.  This time, too, my friends came to my assistance and helped me to escape.  Later I learned that an older boy had fired up the man to attack me through a raging diatribe of anti-Semitic canards and worse.

That day I learned another lesson about hate: words matter, for they spawn action.

I spent much of my life in and around Squirrel Hill, and two of my nephews celebrated their Bar Mitzvahs in the Tree of Life Synagogue, the place of Saturday’s slaughter. My brother once taught there. In other words, it’s personal.  

I know Pittsburgh. I bleed the black and gold of its sports teams, as does much of this nation.


And, yes, I get the Trump rallies.  It’s Pittsburgh 101…at least from the perspective of the neighborhood of my youth.

For virtually everyone attending one of his rallies, it’s a The Rocky Horror Picture Show-type fan experience.  It’s all about having a good time, where folk get to be part of the show. They come in their expected costumes, and know when to laugh, when to boo, and when it’s time to shout out their lines.
 

And when it’s all over they go back home, have a good laugh about what they did, and return to living their everyday lives.

BUT, for some it’s more than that. They don’t see it for the performance art it is, but as a passionate call to action. They take it seriously, and the results can be catastrophic. 

Just ask any Pittsburgher.  Jew or not.

Yes, words matter.


—Jeff

22 comments:

  1. Good article, Jeff. Yes, hateful people are everywhere, but I always felt Pittsburgh was a more benign, egalitarian city, at least when I was there in the early 70's. I lived in, first, Bloomfield and then Lawrenceville. There will always be some that let incitements drive them to action, and that is truly sad.

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    1. Thanks, Dave. There's no doubt about anything you said. That's why words matter, for in even the most benevolent and accepting of communities, there lurk those susceptible of being prodded into unleashing horrendous acts.

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  2. Learning and putting to use values and learning how to interact with people of other faiths (or no faith as many claim these days), seems to be a key point here. Loved this post but so very sorry that actions of one who had no values or ability to interact with other faiths, prompted it. Words do matter as they often lead to actions.

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    1. If those with influence who speak such words do not see, or refuse to appreciate, the significance of what they say, heaven help us all.

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  3. Thank you for this, Jeff. Sadly, events like this seem to be so common these days that one almost becomes immune to them as 'the way it is.' By making it personal, you've reminded us that it isn't and should never be.

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    1. Thanks, Stan. I believe it was Stalin who said, "The death of one is a tragedy, the death of millions a statistic."

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  4. Jeff, since 1776 there's been tension between what America aspires to and what it is. Thanks for reminding us of our better natures.

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  5. Proud to call you cousin. Passionate and wise words we should all learn from.

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    1. Thanks, MJ. I'm proud to be part of the family.

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  6. From Annamaria: My brother, I went to Catholic school with kids who called Jewish kids in the neighborhood “Christ killers.” I can probably describe in detail the bullies who attacked you. My father taught my brothers and me to remind them that Christ was a Jew. And to ask them what Jesus would say if he were watching what they were doing. Politicos who foment hate need to have their mouths washed out with soap. Or lye.

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    1. Virtually everyone I knew in my neighborhood was like you and your family, Sis. Not as attractive of course, but of the same openness and understanding. The difference was in those days we discarded the few rotten apples. These days they're polished up and put into the heart of the barrel.

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  7. First, perfect column, brother.
    Second, more than anything else he's done, his preaching of hatred and divisiveness qualifies him for impeachment and removal from office under the heading of High Crimes and Misdemeanors.
    Third, YOU are Jewish??? Sheesh, now I have to stop being nice to you. See, words DO matter!

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  8. Interesting insight into “audience par-ti-ci-pa-tion” angle. Thanks for sharing powerful moments of your childhood.

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    1. Thanks, Betty. The Rocky Horror Show angle just hit me as I was writing the piece.

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  9. What a beautiful, beautiful piece. Most people are fine if their basest impulses aren't catered to, but unfortunately we live in an age when catering to the bases impulses is seen as the path to power. Not to invoke Godwin's law, but we HAVE seen this before, and let's not forget how it worked out.

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    1. Thanks, Tim. Perhaps because I'm so close to what happened a week ago, my antenna are picking up false signals. But I feel as if people now are looking to put on the brakes and steer toward the sensible. I guess we'll see if there's anything to that in a couple of days. And yes, never forget.

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  10. Now I've heard there was a secret chord
    That David played, and it pleased the Lord
    But you don't really care for music, do you?
    It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
    The minor fall, the major lift

    Hallelujah, Hallelujah
    Hallelujah, Hallelujah

    You say I took the name in vain
    I don't even know the name
    But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
    There's a blaze of light in every word that matters
    L. Cohen

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