Pittsburgh native Bari Weiss returned to the city on Monday, Nov. 4. Weiss, a New York Times writer and op-ed editor, spoke at Chatham University’s Campbell Memorial Chapel before a crowd of over 650. The author was joined in conversation by University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg.
The event served as part promotional stop, part homecoming for Weiss, who joked when taking the stage that she remembered most of the audience from her bat mitzvah. Those familial feelings belied the seriousness of the conversation with the writer, who was in town to promote her first book, “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.”
Nordenberg set the stage for the pair’s dialogue, observing that the peace and calm of the evening was very different than that of a year ago following the shooting at the Tree of Life building. He dedicated the program to the victims of the attack and of anti-Semitism throughout the world.
Nordenberg pointed out that Weiss had recently been named No. 7 in the Jerusalem Post’s list of “The 50 Most Influential Jews of 2019” and asked if she found this a blessing or a burden.
Weiss replied that she viewed her whole life as a blessing. “My inheritance was unimaginable. Not in a financial sense … but in the sense that I was born in this country in the Golden Age of American Jewry. I was born after the feminists broke down the walls at work. I was born in a country whose founders so fully understood the Jewish story.”
Nordenberg explained that in her book, Weiss describes herself as an American, a Jew, a Zionist and a proud daughter of Pittsburgh. He asked what that Pittsburgh connection meant to her.
The editor, who left the city for college, said that “being from Pittsburgh meant everything to me and I didn’t realize it until I left.”
Weiss painted a portrait of her life in Squirrel Hill as going from Shabbat dinners filled with interesting conversation to services at Beth Shalom, from various events at Chabad followed by basketball at the Jewish Community Center.
“It was only when I went to New York that I realized that was really, really exceptional.”
Recalling the city’s response to Oct. 27, Weiss said, “There was a sense of community. The attack on the Jewish community in Pittsburgh was an attack on everyone. I think that’s a model for America and the world.”
Part of that model, according to the author, involved finding the helpers in the tragic event. That idea was popularized by Pittsburgh television pioneer Mr. Rogers and holds special meaning for Weiss. “Everything embodied on that show is not just a lovely feeling but it became reality.”
In her book, Weiss writes that her life was a “holiday from history.” Nordenberg followed up by asking what she meant by that phrase.
In a somber explanation, Weiss said that the Tree of Life tragedy, the attack in Poway and the attempt by a white supremacist in Colorado earlier in the week to blow up a synagogue is a “return to the norm of Jewish history.”
She continued saying that throughout history Jews have worried about security and of displaying visible signs of their Judaism. “I never thought about those things when I was growing up. That in itself is an unbelievable departure that said something unique about what America could be at its very best.”
A large portion of the conversation between the two was spent discussing Weiss’ distinction between anti-Jewish prejudice and anti-Semitism as well as the various types of anti-Semitism expressed by the far right, the far left and radical Islam.
As Weiss explained it, anti-Jewish prejudice doesn’t currently threaten the lives of Jews. It is, she said, “morally disgusting” but doesn’t fundamentally seek the erasure of the Jewish people.
She contrasted that with anti-Semitism, labeling it the “oldest conspiracy theory” using several tropes employed by white supremacists to illustrate her point.
The author didn’t shy away from discussing what some progressives view as her most controversial point, that the far left exhibits anti-Semitic behavior which can be found, among other places, on college campuses.
She explained her position by saying that the “far left is more insidious” than the far right and uses the language of “all good progressives: social justice, anti-hate, etc.”
The goals of the far left, according to Weiss, are “Jewish zombies, living in Jewish bodies” that disavow their “Jewish soul.” As an example, she pointed to Britain’s Labour Party, which disavows Zionism and any form of Jewish power.
She concluded her description by saying the far left doesn’t seek “dead Jews,” only Jews who are more marginalized and assimilated.
This belief has caused the group IfNotNow Pittsburgh to publicly criticize the author. The progressive organization wrote an op-ed, published in the Pittsburgh City Paper the same day as Weiss’ appearance. In it the group questioned casting far-left Jewish movements in the “role of white supremacists” who are equally “to blame, if not more, as the far right for the spread of anti-Semitism.”
Weiss didn’t respond publicly to the op-ed. However, in a question from the audience about whether there have been protests at her speaking engagements the author joked, “Not yet. I’m waiting. I was sort of hoping there would be some here tonight.”
The idea of solidarity concluded the conversation. Weiss recalled watching a video of the memorial service at Soldiers and Sailors Hall & Museum after the massacre and what it meant to see local leaders embrace the Jewish community.
“I was so moved by seeing the Mourner’s Kaddish at Soldiers and Sailors with all of the leaders on stage, there were like 30 or 40 religious leaders onstage. It was our prayer, in our language. It allowed us to be our full self, which allows other communities to be their full self as well.”
If you were unable to attend the talk and would like to see the conversation in full, C-SPAN recorded the event and plans to air it in the future. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.