A message to Poway, from Pittsburgh, six months later
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Grappling with pain

A message to Poway, from Pittsburgh, six months later

When words ring hollow

Toby Tabachnick
A memorial outside the Tree of Life*Or L'Simcha synagogue after the massacre. (Photo by Jim Busis)
A memorial outside the Tree of Life*Or L'Simcha synagogue after the massacre. (Photo by Jim Busis)

I ran into an old friend about three weeks after the Tree of Life massacre, a former Pittsburgher, who wanted to talk about the events of Oct. 27. In particular, she wanted to know about one of the survivors, someone with whom she had grown up.

“Is she doing OK?” my friend asked.

I snapped back: “None of us is doing OK.”

Then I silently thought, or maybe said out loud, “That’s not even the right question.”

My friend was well-meaning, and I realized almost immediately that my response was out of line, especially because I also had been guilty of spouting platitudes since Oct. 27. How many people had I interviewed who witnessed the unimaginable, or whose loved one was brutally murdered, with whom I began the conversation with the now absurd question: “How are you?”

None of us was OK.

Instead, our feelings could have been catalogued like a sideways and distorted al chet.

We were depressed, we were angry, we were confused.

We were questioning our faith, we were questioning our security, we were questioning our place in America.

We were anxious, we were skittish.

We were scared.

Yes, we felt the love of tens of thousands of other Jews and non-Jews from around the globe, who have reached out to us and held our hands, and sent us money, and erected memorials to honor the martyrs slain in what should have been their safe place by an anti-Semite. We felt the love, and we told the world that love is stronger than hate.

But what could we say to each other? Are there words that offer social connection and salutation, that convey that we care, without sounding hollow, without sounding ridiculous?

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, the spiritual leader of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, told me in the days following the shooting that sometimes using no words is the right choice, that a hug is the way to go. Hugs are good, but not always appropriate, especially between those who are strangers–regardless of the fact that they share the distinction of being part of Jewish Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018.

I, for one, have been unable to find the words, and I still stutter as I begin conversations, slipping into the familiar social constructs of language as I continue to meet with those flooded with sorrow so that I can try to tell their stories.

“People in mourning tend to use euphemism,” notes writer Zadie Smith in “Elegy for a Country’s Season,” an essay published in 2014. “The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: ‘The new normal.’… We can’t even say the word ‘abnormal’ to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before.”

I will say it. The situation that Jewish Pittsburgh has found itself in since Oct. 27, 2018 is abnormal. What came before, the complacent and unspoken conviction that our community is safe is gone, if not forever, certainly for the foreseeable future.

We have seen the worst of humanity, and now so has Poway. But we also have seen the best, in the aftermath, in the unwavering support of so many, and that has helped to ease the pain. The pain is eased but it nonetheless persists as we go about our daily lives in our new abnormal state.

As the weeks and months passed, we resumed the celebrations that are the lifeblood of our people. A community-menorah lighting outside the Tree of Life building was at once a reaffirmation of our dedication to our values and a melancholy reminder of those who were not there to celebrate. By Purim, we were ready for the shpiels and the carnivals, while we continued to be haunted by the knowledge that life for us is different now.

Then came Passover.

At my own family’s seder I read the Haggadah’s words, that in every generation there are those who want to kill us. I simultaneously recalled the words of a daughter of one of the 11 Jews murdered here, telling me how difficult her family’s seder would be this year without her dad. It was almost too much to bear.

Passover was difficult for many of us in Pittsburgh, but on the eighth day, any bandage straining to cover our deep and personal wound was harshly ripped from our communal skin when we heard the news of the shooting at the Chabad of Poway.

We gathered together outside the Tree of Life building again in vigil, six months to the day of our own anti-Semitic attack.

We are grieving with you, Poway. We feel your loss in our bones. We offer you love, and we offer you solidarity.

But I weep as I tell you, there are no words. PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org. This piece was originally published by San Diego Jewish World.

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