Tree of Life

When I was seven, my family moved from Charleston, West Virginia to Western Pennsylvania. My parents are both from midwestern states and, following my father’s work, they wound their way from Iowa and Illinois to Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, but we moved away when I was only two years old, so I never formed a solid connection with Moses Cleveland’s namesake city.

Smack in the middle of the Blizzard of ’78, we moved to a small town to the east of Pittsburgh. Driving straight up Interstate 79, I clearly remember breaking out of the Fort Pitt tunnel and seeing for the first time “The View.” Straight ahead, the dark spires of downtown Pittsburgh sparkled through the gathering snow. To the right, those city lights were reflected in the waters of the Monongahela and the horizon was aglow with the angry orange light of the steel mills, at that time still running twenty-fours hours a day. We passed through this scene in an eye-blink, but those first impressions of Pittsburgh are still etched into my brain. I was hooked.

Western Pennsylvania became home and Pittsburgh became my city. Through high school and college, I saw concerts, baseball games, art exhibits and films in the city. I introduced out-of-towners to the fantastic architecture of the city and the quirky and diverse neighborhoods, especially the ones that I was most familiar with — the collection of communities known as the East End. 

After college, I left the area for work but returned five years later. I took up residency for the first time in the city of Pittsburgh and in the area that I knew best — the East End. My first apartment was in North Oakland near the universities. Then I moved to Squirrel Hill, half a block from the Tree of Life congregation. 

If you’ve never visited Pittsburgh, Squirrel Hill is a fantastic neighborhood — cosmopolitan, vibrant and a place that wears its Jewish heritage with pride, but has room for everyone. The central business district of Squirrel Hill is full of shops, restaurants, coffee shops and bars. Its tree-lined residential streets are perfect for walking on warm summer evenings or Saturday mornings. I often passed by the Tree of Life on my way into central Squirrel Hill, on the way to work or just walking around the neighborhood. To hear that it was attacked was a gut punch. This peaceful neighborhood, home for many years to Mister Rogers himself, was attacked by an individual spewing a message of pure hate. Sadly, such views and violence seem to be the new normal in America.

The Jewish community of Squirrel Hill is strong and close knit. They will get through this as a community and with the love and support of the rest of the city. Pittsburghers, the descendants of immigrants who worked hard and supported each other because no one else would, take care of their own. But it will take time and life will be very different now. There will be armed guards at the synagogues and the Hebrew schools and at the Jewish Community Center. Patrons of the neighborhood’s restaurants and bars will cast a nervous eye at the door whenever someone enters. We will be diminished because of the irrational actions of one individual.

I have no answers, only a great sadness. The image below was taken in 2017 and already titled “Tree of Life.” The olive tree and its branches have great significance to many cultures across the Mediterranean basin and have been used for millennia as a symbol of peace. In Jewish culture it symbolizes stability and tranquility and the link between humanity and the earth. I offer this image as a small solace that the victims of this tragedy and the Jewish community of Pittsburgh may find peace.