To Pittsburgh, And To Life

To Pittsburgh, And To Life October 29, 2018

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Others have already written at greater length than I will be able to muster about the Pittsburgh shooting, the largest anti-Semitic mass murder in U. S. history. I especially recommend that everyone go read Bari Weiss’s stirring tribute, if they have not done so already. A more fitting homage to Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood could not have been penned in this moment.

When I encounter overwhelmingly sad news, bits of music tend to flood to mind. The news out of Pittsburgh was no exception. One in particular kept recurring: not a sad song, but an almost frenetic celebration of joy and life. Yet it’s a celebration that is nonetheless tinged at the sharp edges with a rueful quality, sung in the voice of a people acquainted with grief. It is “L’Chaim (To Life)” from Fiddler On the Roof. As a child shoving our double VHS into the player over and over, I was always too intoxicated by the whirl of scarves and drunken, dancing men to catch all the lyrics clearly.

It was not until some years later that I heard the song again, sung lustily by amateurs at a wedding, as if for the first time. It was then that I heard it: the sadness. The quick stabs of sharp, wry resignation. “It takes a wedding to make us say ‘Let’s live another day!'” “May all your futures be pleasant ones, not like our present ones.” “And if our good fortune never comes, here’s to whatever comes.”

Most poignantly, from the very beginning: “Life has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us.” Then the first verse just after that line:

God would like us to be joyful

Even when our hearts lie panting on the floor

How much more should we be joyful

When there’s really something to be joyful for?

Now, when I hear this song, I will think of the congregation gathered in Tree of Life synagogue to celebrate a bris, when there was really something to be joyful for.

Joyce Feinberg, 75: An education researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, remembered as “a magnificent, generous, caring and profoundly thoughtful human being.”

Rich Gottfried, 65: A dentist, beloved in the community. Together, he and his wife offered free care at the Catholic Charities Free Dental Clinic. At Halloween, he would pass out toothbrushes instead of candy. He was an avid runner and a lover of books.

Rose Malinger, 97: In her energy, boundless. In her vivacity, ageless.

Jerry Rabinowitz, 66: A doctor, beloved and remembered as “a kind and gentle man.” He escaped the first wave of shooting and went back to tend the wounded under fire.

Cecil and David Rosenthal, 59 and 54: Brothers, both with special needs. Cecil would greet you at the synagogue door with an infectious laugh and a “Miss Lady” or “Mister.” He loved food, baseball and people. During service, he would carry the Torah.

Bernice and Sylvan Simon, 84 and 86 (married): Bernice was a retired nurse who would leave loaves of cranberry orange bread for the young neighbor woman who shoveled her walk in the winter. Their front door was decorated with patriotic stickers.

Daniel Stein, 71: A kind soul, always ready with a helping hand or a dry joke.

Melvin Wax, 88: He was leading shabbat in the basement on Saturday morning. He went to synagogue several times a week, where a thousand years would have been as a day to him.

Irving Younger, 69: He went by “Irv” and served wherever he was needed. He loved to walk down Murray Avenue and greet you as you passed by.

I will think of these names, and I will keep them in memory, in a monument more lasting than bronze.

I will think of men’s voices raised at a bar mitzvah, singing a setting of Psalm 127:1 and 121:4 together. “Hine, hine lo yanum, lo yanum velo yishan, lo yanum velo yishan, shomer Israel”: “He who watches over Israel will never slumber nor sleep.”

I will think of young voices in the streets of Israel, bursting into song on the day of their independence, commencing just as the silence for their departed military dead comes to an end. A silence, then a song. A memorial, then a celebration. Such is the way. Such is the tradition.

I will think of life in all its bruising confusion, in all its darkness when we look for a light, in all its silence when we listen for an answer. And still, I will think of Being, in all its terrible goodness. I will think of Mercy, in all her terrible swiftness, her arms outstretched as the wings of a mother hen.

I will think of this stubborn, sarcastic, indomitable people, to me impossible to hate, to so many impossible not to hate. That people with whom God could lose all patience, for whom He wept, and weeps still.

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