In Jewish philosophy, the “Tree of Life” is emblematic of the wisdom of the Torah: “its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and those who draw near it are fortunate.”
Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.
and all its paths are peace.
Today, an anti-Semetic terrorist killed eleven people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Today is Shabbat, which began at sundown on Friday night and will last until sundown tonight. There was a baby-naming ceremony occurring at services today. The baby would have been eight days old. On the eighth day of this baby’s life, eleven people were murdered.
If you woke up this morning and heard “synagogue shooting” and thought in the period of time between seeing an out-of-context tweet and looking up the news “is this my synagogue” or “is this where my Mom was this morning.” If you felt some kind of guilty relief, tempered tragically by the awareness that for so many people the facts of the matter confirmed the worst, bringing no such relief.
JE Reich, a Brooklyn-based queer non-binary writer who attended, with their family, the Tree of Life synagogue, tweeted that “Waiting to hear who was injured and who was killed is a nightmare. The Jewish community is tight-knit in Pittsburgh; no matter who the victims are, they will be people we know.” JE’s step-dad was the executive director of the synagogue, a progressive conservative congregation.
When tragedies like this take place, we do our best to have a person write the story for Autostraddle who has a connection to the community targeted. Al Monts wrote about murder of African-American worshippers at Charleston’s Mother Emmanuel Church in 2015. Yvonne Marquez wrote about the mass murder of queer Latinx people at the Pulse Nightclub — the day it happened, two days later, and again on the anniversary.
Today, my turn came. I am terrified thinking of whose turn will come up next, or who will have another round. I am terrified knowing inevitably there will be a next time.
What should come next — but may not, because these deaths occurred at a crime scene, which can complicate things — is that the bodies will be buried in plain pine boxes. There will be no embalming or cremation, in order to hasten the return of the body to the earth. There is a traditional ritual purification of the body that happens prior to burial, but that will not happen in this case because Jewish law states that Jews killed by non-Jews because they are Jewish be buried in the clothing they wore when they were killed. There are many interpretations as to why this is done — to preserve every drop of blood, to make a statement, to honor their sacrifice.
What will come next — what has already come next — is that our G-dforsaken President (and I mean that literally, now) will stand at a podium in front of a microphone and speak a variation on the philosophy that “the only thing that stops a man with a gun is another gun.”
What will come between now and the burial is “aninut.” Families will be left alone to grieve with each other and fully inhabit their grief.
What will come next — what is already coming next — is that the “alt-right” will continue thriving and growing and feeling empowered to hate people of color, to hate queer people, to hate Jews and Muslims and women. Our G-dforsaken President will fan the flames of this fire.
What will come next, after the burial and the se’udat havra’ah (meal of condolence), is that the parents, children, spouses and siblings of the deceased will sit shiva for seven days, preferably in the home of the deceased. Friends and family and strangers who knew the dead but not you will come by to give condolences. You will wear black and cover the mirrors. People will bring food. There will be so much food: kugels, stacks of deli meats and pre-sliced cheese beneath plastic crowns. Loaves of challah and rye bread. Lox, damp paper bags of bagels, several varieties of cream cheese. Some will end up being frozen for later, because it’s just too much. A neighbor will tell you to keep the casserole dish, it’s okay. Overly affectionate grandparents will embrace squirming, shellshocked children.
Republicans will push back against any gun control measures, even the most generous, eminently sensible ones, like banning automatic weapons or bump stocks.
Going forward, on the one-year anniversary of the death of their loved ones, family members will observe Yahrzeit. They will light a candle in honor of the dead that burns for 24 hours. They will recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. The weird thing about the Mourner’s Kaddish is that it does not mention death or dying. You usually learn or memorize the Mourner’s Kaddish before you learn Hebrew entirely, so if you don’t grow up speaking Hebrew, the Mourner’s Kaddish starts out to you as a child as a bizarre assemblage of sounds Then it grows up and becomes words, chanted in the same way every time. The Mourner’s Kaddish praises G-d, exalting and hallowing His name.
The official stance of the Conservative movement, which as aforementioned the Tree of Life synagogue is a part of, is accepting of LGBT Jews and pro-LGBT rights.
“People use my proper pronouns there, and I’ve been called to the Bima for aliyot during Torah services,” JE told me. Our recent reader survey found LGBTQ+ women and non-binary people more likely to identify as Jewish than members of any other organized religion. I mention this only to point out that there is a much larger segment of our community (8.2%) who feel a personal connection to today’s events than there are in non-LGBTQ communities (2%), and to be aware of that. It is also important to be aware that not all Jews are white, and that queer Jews of color, at this horrific moment in human history, are likely in need of extra support and comfort.
All day this Jewish folk song has been stuck in my head, because it’s called “The Tree of Life.” It’s one of the first ones you learn in Religious School because it’s simple and upbeat, and has only a few lyrics. It goes:
It is a tree of life to them who hold fast to it
and all of its supporters are happy,
It is a tree of life to them who hold fast to it
and all of its supporters are happy.
Shalom, by the way, means “peace” and “hello” and “goodbye.” It means all of those things.
This is what will happen next, as per Genesis 4:10 — blood shed by murder will cry out to G-d from the ground.
Blood shed by murder will call out to G-d from the ground.
The injured, for whom we say the מִי שֶׁבֵּרַךְ: Paul Leger, 70. A 61-year-old woman, a 55-year-old man, a 27-year-old male police officer and a 40-year-old male SWAT officer.
These are the names of the dead:
Daniel Stein, 71
Joyce Fienberg, 75
Richard Gottfried, 65
Rose Mallinger, 97
Jerry Raminowitz, 66
Brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54
Husband and wife Bernice Simon, 84 and Sylvan Simon, 86
Melvin Wax, 88
Irving Younger, 69
And as long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.