I had a different piece for Michiana Chronicles prepared for today, one for election season, about the first time I voted back in 1972 and two years later when a funny guy running for Bloomington mayor smashed an egg on his head while I interviewed him on public access cable TV. It was my latest attempt at being heartwarming and universal, but the universe I occupy no longer seems like the right home for what I had to say.
“Heartwarming” lives in an alternate universe where today I can’t pretend I still live. I grew up there, taught school there, and had a family there, all with a sense of optimism about a better world to come, but I don’t live there anymore.
I’m thinking about what happened Saturday in Pittsburgh, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, at the Tree of Life synagogue.
Eleven people were murdered because they went to Shabbat services, the weekly celebration of the day of rest. Two more congregants and four policemen who tried to save everyone were wounded.
I don’t know what to say about what happened in Pittsburgh Saturday, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, at the Tree of Life Synagogue. I don’t know what to say and I don’t feel like I’m the guy to say it, but I can’t bring myself to say what I was going to say about the first time I voted and the time Leon smashed an egg on his head. That seems silly today, and I just can’t bring myself to pretend that “heartwarming” even exists anymore, not here, not now.
I read in the New York Times Monday morning that one of the people inside the Tree of Life synagogue, on a day of celebration for the birth of a child, a man who was not hit by a round from an assault weapon that our lawmakers are paid by the NRA to protect, is a man named Barry Werber. Barry Werber is 76 years old. He was there, especially, because it was his mother’s yahrzeit, that is the anniversary of her death, an occasion that we Jews commemorate at services.
When the chaos began and Barry knew what it was, he ducked into a storage closet with three others. One of the three got out leaving Barry, Mel Wax, and Carol Black. When Mel, who was 88 and didn’t hear so well, opened the door, the murderer shot him dead. The murderer looked into the closet, but it was too dark to see, and the murderer moved away from Barry and Carol, moved on to the visible.
When Barry was finally allowed, Saturday afternoon, to leave the scene of the massacre, I’m quoting, now, the Times article, “When Mr. Werber was finally allowed to leave, he found that he was lost driving home on streets he had known his entire life.”
Barry is 76-years-old.
“‘I couldn’t find my way home,’ he said.”
Rabbi called us to Temple Saturday night, that’s Rabbi Companez and Temple Beth El, in South Bend, and though she struggled to speak, she told us about her brother who lives in Pittsburgh, that he’s safe, but that she didn’t know for a few hours, didn’t know until his wife called from Israel to tell her. Rabbi’s brother’s wife called from Israel to relay information about the safety of an American Jew who lives in an American city where American Jews had been under attack, for the crime of being Jews.
There were others there at Temple, with family in Pittsburgh, too. We don’t have family there, but I know that life at the Tree of Life synagogue is a lot like life at Temple Beth El. I know a little Hebrew and I know what a “bima” is and the difference between a “bar” and “bat” mitzvah and what happens at a “bris.” I know what “yahrzeit” means. I know about the warmth and the love and the joy and the thoughtfulness, the humanity, that was in every corner of the Tree of Life synagoguge Saturday morning. Then, a guy who hates the thought of Jews helping people who speak a different language and are trying to escape persecution, took 20 minutes out of his Saturday morning to destroy it. “All these Jews need to die,” he said. Humanity was the target.
Judy, my partner in life and the practical one, asked our group Saturday night to consider what it’s going to be like for the people in the Tree of Life congregations to return to that building, the rabbis, the staff, the synagogue leadership, and of course all the members, their friends and neighbors and out-of-town relatives, who until Saturday knew it to be a place of warmth and love and joy and thoughtfulness. Humanity. I could not speak. I don’t know what to say.
Music: "Can’t Find My Way Home" by Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton (org. Blind Faith)