Antisemitism is on the rise. It is a fact that is sadly indisputable. When innocent congregants were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27th, 2018, it was a wake up call.
Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood, by Mark Oppenheimer (co-host of the Unorthodox podcast), was published earlier this month. In the book, Opppenheimer focuses on the community, both past and present. It starts with the history of both the city and the neighborhood and ends with how it has bounced back since that day. What makes Squirrel Hill unique is that it is both diverse and has retained it’s Jewish neshama (soul). While in other parts of the country, there is an obvious demographic, cultural and religious shift over the decades, this district has maintained its identity.
When the gunman (who the author does not mention by name and shall be referred to in the same manner in this review) entered the synagogue, it was an event that can only be described as knowing the rose colored glasses off of our collective faces. With a journalist’s eye and the heart of an ordinary human being, Oppenheimer speaks to survivors, the victim’s family members, local residents, historians, and others to tell the story of a moment in time that will forever be preserved in a moment of hate, fear, and heartbreak.
I loved this book. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was on multiple lists of the top books of 2021. If the author’s approach would have been to wallow in grief and anger while telling this story, he would have had every right to. But he treats the subject with sensitivity and the understanding that not everyone involved is ready or able to talk about that day and its aftermath.
The best way to learn about a new culture is to speak to a local. They have the insight and experience that an outsider would never have.
Earlier this month, Israeli actress/ producer Noa Tishby published her first book. The Tel Aviv native seeks to understand and explain Israel as it is, without relying on the flashy headlines or the half truths. Using her firsthand experience, she speaks of Israel, both past and present, as it is, and not how some see it or wish it could be.
What I love about this book is how down to earth and accessible it is. Tishby‘s voice is that of the average person, not the academic or historian who usually writes about this topic. That, I believe, provides an opportunity for a dialogue that should have happened long ago.
If you only read two chapters, I highly recommend chapters on BDS and the virulent anti-Israeli sentiment (which is really antisemitism). Even for those who are well versed on the topic, it was an eye opener.
It takes a special person to join the clergy of any religion. It is more than leading prayers and being the layperson at various stage of life events. That person has to be able to speak of that religion and its tenets in a way that connects to everyone, regardless of any specific faiths.
I had the pleasure of seeing him speak in person a few years ago. It was nothing short of inspiring. It was just before the High Holidays. Those who have attended High Holidays services can attest that as important as those days are, they are quite frankly, difficult and not exactly fun. But they shouldn’t be fun.
Rabbi Sacks was able to explain in very simple terms the emotional and psychological importance of those days. I’ve been attending High Holiday services since I was very young. But that was the first time I was truly able to understand the meaning of the High Holidays.
He recently was a guest on the Unorthodox podcast. Though he was there to publicize his latest book, he also spoke about current events and how morality is as important as it ever was.
Primarily written by podcast hosts Mark Oppenheimer, Liel Leibovitz, and Stephanie Butnick, this book is more than your standard encyclopedia. It contains images, charts, and illustrations, it is the story of Judaism, past, and present.
The thing that I loved about this book is that though it is an opportunity to learn, it does not feel like the reader is learning something. It is a fun read and a wonderful opportunity to open hearts and minds, regardless of one’s knowledge or level of practice of Judaism.
I sometimes try to delude myself that because I lived in the United States, this won’t happen to me. I am seen as a complete human being, not just a member of a particular religious or cultural group. But I have to face reality. Antisemitism is on the rise in numbers that has not been seen in generations. I shouldn’t be afraid to wear an outward symbol of my faith out of fear of being abused or attacked. But this is the reality that we all live in.
The shooting was the subject of this week’s Unorthodox episode. It made me feel less alone and less scared. But it also reminded me that I live in a world in which entering a house of worship requires passing by security and police. I wish that this was not the case, but it is.
May the memory of those 11 innocent people killed on that day forever be a blessing and may their blood be avenged.