We Are Squirrel Hill

I feel the need to say something about the horrific mass murder at Etz Chaim synagogue in Pittsburgh that occurred during Shabbat services yesterday.  Unfortunately, anything I could possibly say will necessarily be inconsequential and, quite possibly, both insipid and stupid.  I simply don’t have the words to make it better.  All over the world, our hearts go out to the families left behind, to the congregants and to the community at large.  But thoughts and prayers, lovely as they are, don’t seem nearly enough.  Neither does the condemnation of the accused and his actions, as voiced by President Trump.

Our president, like many others, says that gun control is not the answer, despite the fact that the same high-powered weapons of war used by our military are readily accessible to anyone with a little cash.  In fact, some believe that more guns is the answer, suggesting that this tragedy could have been avoided by an armed security guard posted at the door to the synagogue.  As it is, the falling rate of participation in organized worship, combined with competition from other synagogues in the area, has necessitated renting space at Etz Chaim to three different congregations (all of which were conducting services at the time of the murders).  Considering what it takes to make operating the building viable in today’s world, where would the money come from to hire an armed guard?  The necessity of that expense may well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, a financial stress sufficient to close the building entirely, to cause it to be sold to buyers intending to use it for other purposes, leaving three congregations without a place of worship.  Indeed, most small congregations are unable to bear such an expense.  Then there’s the dampening effect on the spirit resulting from our admission that, no, we can no longer fling open the doors of our religious sanctuary to all who wish to worship God, and that, yes, we recognize that we live in a world of such madness that families worshipping together is no longer a safe act, that our Constitution’s first amendment is being held hostage by its second.

What I fear most is complacency, the acceptance born of numbness, the sentiment that “oh, it happened again,” followed by shoulder shrugging amidst the conclusion that the horrors of mass murder, whether motivated by hate or otherwise, are an unavoidable consequence of a free society.  It is out of self-preservation that most of us choose to think of more pleasant things, else how could we go on tending to the needs of our jobs, families and communities?  I know.  I was deeply affected by the Sandy Hook massacre of innocents, and yet here I am still writing, six years later.  Our very sanity would be in peril unless we put such nightmares out of our minds.  And soon enough we forget, at least until the next one occurs, and the next one, and the one after that. Except for the mothers and fathers, the wives and husbands, the family members and friends.  They are the ones who are never able to forget.  The rest of us, however, throw up our hands and move on.  So is it really any wonder that bigots, racists, and assorted demented individuals continue to shoot up synagogues, mosques, churches, schools, workplaces, and music concerts?  There are days when I think that the primary reason they do it is because they can.

The answer, of course, is to make it so that they can’t.  When there are little children present who do not know right from wrong, we remove all dangerous objects from their reach.  The time has come to wake up and acknowledge that we no longer live in a rational society, that there are many children among us who, left to their own folly, will surely hurt themselves and others.  Congress needs to open its eyes and act in loco parentis and remove legal access to guns once and for all.  Otherwise, we can just forget about freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of religion in a world where printing political cartoons in a newspaper gets your newsroom shot up, where speaking out on the issues leaves you riddled with bullets, and where attending Shabbat services to worship our Creator and fellowship with our communities ends in a bloodbath.  Before you vote in the midterms nine days from now, think about which candidates favor gun control and which candidates support the gun lobby and the prospect of more and more mass murders.

And so today, just as many carried signs and wore buttons announcing “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” three years ago, instead of murmuring thanks that it wasn’t our community that suffered this tragedy, instead of burying our heads in the sand, instead of hoping that we’re not next, we need to loudly announce “We are Squirrel Hill.”

For I am reasonably certain that if I lived in Pittsburgh instead of in California, I would have been present at one of the services at Etz Chaim on Saturday morning.  And I might not be here to write this.



Three Visits With My Parents


Have prayer book, will travel . . .

Among the effects of having one’s children early is that when you’re old and would like your kids to take care of you, they’ll be old, too.  Granted, they won’t be as old as you are, but old nevertheless.  As in you’ll be able to go out to eat together and both of you will get the senior discount.  Both of you will be getting Social Security checks in the mail.  I mean, think about it.  When you’re 85, they’ll be 65.

I visited my parents three times during the month of September.  That’s a total of 18 hours of driving.  The first time was a birthday party for my wife’s little niece.  Then came Rosh Hashannah.  And finally, Yom Kippur.

My parents are 83 years old and they don’t go to synagogue anymore.  My father never went to synagogue to begin with (being somewhere on the agnostic/atheist spectrum) and my mother has had some type of falling out with the synagogue she had been attending.  There are three synagogues in her area, and she finds them all to be money-grubbing.  I am inclined to agree.  I appreciate the need of a synagogue to pay the light bill and the expenses of keeping up the building, not to mention the cost of running its programs, but the strong-arm tactics that they use to squeeze money out of attendees are a bit much.  These days, many synagogues have financial directors who want to see your tax returns to determine how much you earn and to calculate how much you should be paying toward support of the congregation.  It has become fairly standard in the United States for synagogues to charge non-members hefty fees for attending High Holy Day services.  And even organizations like Chabad that claim never to require payment of participants hold an endless round of dinners and speakers before or after services, requesting that attendees pay hefty fees for attendance.  Disclosure:  I do support one of our local Chabad congregations and, frankly, I’m getting sick of their constant emails begging for money.

In my mother’s case, the discomfort engendered by this situation is exacerbated by the fact that she drags my reluctant father with her every time she attends synagogue.  This is mostly because my mother doesn’t drive anymore (she’s perfectly capable, but has chosen to have my car-loving father do all the driving for the past 20 years or so), but also because she won’t go anywhere alone.  She says it makes her feel like a widow.  (In some respects, she is.  My father won’t admit that he’s lost a large part of his hearing, which has already resulted in some dangerous situations in which he could not hear my mother calling him.  Also, they sit in separate rooms and do their own things most of the time.)

At age 83, my parents seem to feel that they are at the stage of life when they can pretty much say whatever they want without consequences.  This has borne some interesting results.  It has caused a number of ugly moments between Mom and my wife, for example.  And when it comes to synagogue, my father, a nonbeliever, feels compelled to comment on the rabbi’s teachings or even challenge them outright.  The rabbi’s young son doesn’t help the situation by running out of the sanctuary to loudly announce to his mother “He’s at it again!”


On the patio at Mom and Dad’s.  Notice the hummingbird at the feeder.

My mother says she’s tired of “getting it from both ends” (the rabbi and my father).  Under the circumstances, I don’t blame her for passing on synagogue attendance.  For both Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, I made the trip down to the Central Valley, mahzor (prayer book) in hand and held my own little service for Mom’s benefit.  On Rosh Hashannah, we did this at the kitchen table (with my uninterested father sitting out on the patio), and on Yom Kippur, outdoors.  The weather was fine (unlike the freezing cold temperatures that we remember from High Holidays of yore on the east coast) and we got to watch the hummingbirds at the feeder and the sheep next door while we atoned for our sins and prayed for forgiveness.  It was a kick to get my cantorial singing voice on and, all told, it was a rather moving experience to spend this time with Mom.  I can’t help but wonder how many more opportunities I will have to do this.


Mom had a large container full of salad that was past its prime, so I got to feed the sheep next door.  There were only three rams and the entire flock of ewes was pregnant.  Baaaa!

The weekend after Rosh Hashannah, still hanging out at my parents’ house, Mom decided to lay a heavy on me by providing instructions for her burial.  This is not as simple as it sounds.  She wants to be laid to rest with her parents at the family plot in New York City.  My wife and I visited the graves of my grandparents there both this year and last during two trips to the eastern seaboard.  Two plots occupied, six more vacant.  It was hard not to think of a time when two more plots will be occupied.  I now know that my mother wishes to be buried directly in front of her mother.  I also know which funeral home to use, as well as a little about what must be done to fly a body from Fresno to LaGuardia.  Uh, um, I guess I wasn’t really ready for this.  But guess what, it looks like the time has arrived for me to grow up and face the facts.  My parents aren’t going to be around forever.

Perhaps the most intriguing factor in this little drama is the uncertainty involved.  Will Dad go first?  He keeps pointing out that, statistically, the husband usually dies before the wife.  My mind fills with pictures of supporting a grief-stricken Mom on a cross-country flight, preceded by taking a screamer down the 99 in the middle of the night when we get the news.  How fast can we throw a week’s worth of clothes in a suitcase?  Yikes.  And then, what would become of Mom?  She doesn’t want to live all alone in that big house way out where the cattle graze on the rangeland.  There is no room for her to live with us in our rented tiny house, where my wife and I are barely able to keep from tripping over one another.  She could always go live with one of my sisters (either the one in the Bay Area or the one in Boston), which I know would not be a particularly pleasant experience for her.  She wants me to retire so my wife and I can come live in her house and take care of her.  Let’s just say that this is unlikely.  There are too many reasons to count.

But what if Mom went first and Dad were left all alone?  He is a loner by nature and probably wouldn’t mind being in that house by himself.  But he doesn’t cook and, despite everything, I suspect that he’d be horribly lonely.  My wife and I were discussing this recently and we agreed that he probably wouldn’t live long if Mom went first.

Let us not forget that there is, at least from my perspective, a third scenario.  As I started off this post my mentioning, when you have children early, they get old right along with you.  I am no spring chicken myself.  Nor am I in the best of health.  What if I shuffle off this mortal coil before my parents do?  My wife knows that I am adamant about being buried here in California rather than having my dead body dragged across the country to a final resting place in (ick) Queens.  (My sisters don’t want to be buried there either, with the likely result that the remaining four plots will remain unoccupied for the next hundred years or so.)  But what of my parents then?  My father, who has long since informed me that if I die he will never forgive me (?), might not last long due to grief.  Perhaps the same is true of Mom.  I certainly hope not, but there it is.  I suppose my sisters will be particularly angry with me for dying when they realize that they now have to deal with Mom and Dad.  I giggle thinking of this.

Sigh.  The whole situation brings on a feeling not unlike that of an impending train wreck that cannot be avoided.  We are clearly heading down that track and all I can do is close my eyes and hold on tight.  I keep telling my parents that, considering their relatively good health, there is no reason that they should not live to 100.  I seriously hope they do.  I figure that things will eventually fall into place, one way or another.

In the meantime, my parents solicited my assistance in planning a celebration in honor of their 65th wedding anniversary.  Sixty-five years of fussin’ and fightin’.  Sixty-five years of bickering and cussin’.  (Mom is bewildered that Dad goes around muttering “Shit!” and “Pain in the ass!” under his breath all day, failing to realize that he is referring to, um, her.)  Their anniversary date is Christmas Eve, just 78 days from this evening.  My sister and her husband are expected to be in California for other reasons around that time, so we’re hoping to arrange for all of us to be together.  We are planning to split the festivities into two parts.  One part will be with my sisters and some of the grandkids near my parents’ home in the Central Valley.  The other part will be with my wife’s family near our home in Sacramento (most of them live 40 to 80 miles north of here).  They are thinking of having a dinner at a Golden Corral, a family buffet place just down the street from us.  They want streamers and balloons.  And invitations.  Thoughts of printing costs and hand calligraphy flashed through my pea brain before I broke the news to Mom about a little thing called Facebook Events.  She knows we do most things electronically these days, but doesn’t want to know about it.  Fine, whatever works, she says.

By the way, I have been trying to convince my parents to purchase iPhones.  They have pre-paid cell phones, although they don’t know how to use most of the features (neither do I).  I think I made my best pitch yet when we were discussing the anniversary party.  Mom says she doesn’t know when it will be held exactly, as she doesn’t know when the school at which my sister teaches will be on vacation.  It’s a Jewish school, so she thought that Sis might be off during Hanukkah rather than around Christmas.  My sister recently moved from Dallas to Boston, so I am not aware of her current employer.  “What school is that?” I asked Mom.  She didn’t know either.  So I whipped out my phone, Googled Jewish day schools in Boston, and checked out a couple of links before Sis’ pic popped up on her school’s website.  Then it was just a matter of clicking around a bit to find the school calendar.  You’re in luck, Mom, she’s off between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

My parents were appropriately impressed by what can be done with a smart phone — at least enough to allow me to show them the simple icons and the ease of accessing features.  “We’d never use most of that stuff,” my mother protested.

Guess what you’re getting for your anniversary, Mom and Dad!




“Are you looking for something?”

The man in the black pants with the tzitzit strings hanging out could tell that I was getting frantic.

“Is there a yarmulke around here somewhere?” I asked, referring to the religious head covering that every male must don upon entering the synagogue.

My voice came out in a disembodied squeak.  This was not me speaking; this was someone else entirely. At the age of 55, I had become a child back in yeshiva again, about to be punished for my forgetfulness.

For me, the most difficult part of attending an Orthodox Jewish elementary school was wrapping my brain around the cultural gap of Grand Canyon-like proportions between what we were taught during the day and what I went home to at night.  After attending a Chabad Lubavitch synagogue service yesterday, I am forced to conclude that nothing has changed in the past half-century.

Back then, my mother kept the kosher laws, although my father, an atheist, did not.  Neither observed the Sabbath or attended synagogue.  Today, along with my Christian wife and Pastor Mom, this Jew boy lives in the parsonage of a Pentecostal church.  Then as now, I am torn between two worlds.  But here I stand, about to participate in the Shabbat service of an ultra-Orthodox congregation that hearkens back to the days of my childhood.

The man on the patio opened the door and entered the sanctuary, returning momentarily bearing a black skullcap.  I thanked him, but I couldn’t look him in the eye.

I know I have a yarmulke here somewhere.  Before leaving the house, I searched our bedroom to no avail.  In the car, I turned the glove box upside down, pissing off my wife royally in the process.  No yarmulke.  But I knew there was no way on earth that I was going to walk into that synagogue bareheaded.

With my head now covered, I meekly entered the rear of the sanctuary, trying my best not to be noticed.  No such luck.  I looked at the floor, but still couldn’t help but catch multiple pairs of eyes following me, attempting to be nonchalant.  I was a few minutes late, and the service was already in progress.

We had left the house early enough, but the convoluted directions provided by Google Maps left us lost somewhere in a subdivision.  We finally called upon Siri on my wife’s iPhone to set us back on the right path.

My next mission was to find a tallis, the black-and-white prayer shawl that Orthodox men wear during Saturday services.  Most regulars bring their own, but there are always a few around for the benefit of those who are without.  I found two or three talletim folded neatly on a table in the back.  They were the heavy, woolen kind, like the ones my grandpa wore during the winter in New York.  Only this is springtime in California.  As I shook out a tallis, I could already feel the itchiness creeping up my neck.

I wrapped the tallis around me as best I could, even though it was way too long for me.  This must be designed for a six-foot guy, I thought.  I sat in an uncomfortable folding chair in one of the rearmost rows, fortunately finding a siddur (prayer book) abandoned on the seat next to me.  As the reader droned on the p’sukei d’zimrah (opening prayers) in Hebrew, I flipped through the book in hope of recognizing some familiar words that might guide me to the correct page.

There were more than twenty men in the room, twice as many as are needed for the minyan (quorum) that must be present before the Torah scrolls can be removed from the ark.  The folding chairs were lined up four abreast on either side of a center aisle, a long line extending from the patio doors in the back all the way to the reader’s platform at the front.  I looked over to the four chairs across the aisle, which abutted the makhitzah, the tall latticed divider that split the room in half.  Although I couldn’t see them, I knew that the women of the congregation sat on the other side.  A few plants, probably fake ones, trailed over the divider.

To my left were three bookcases pushed together against the outer wall of the building.  Scanning the shelves in an effort to make it less obvious that I didn’t know where we were in the service, I noticed the presence of multiple copies of various versions of the prayer book, khumashim (Bibles) and a number of volumes that I did not recognize.  Tehillim was the title of one.  Wait, I know what that is:  Psalms.  Scanning my brain for translations that hadn’t been called for in a long time, I was able to cobble enough words together to realize that this book was about the laws of the Sabbath, that one was a volume of Talmud.

Eventually, the rabbi called out the page numbers that we had reached in the “red” and the “blue,” references to the colors of the bindings to the two different versions of the prayer book that were on hand.  Of course, I recognized the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”) and the Ashrei (Psalm 145), although the latter was read at such lightning speed that I hadn’t gotten through half of it before the reader was on to the next prayer.  Everything was in Hebrew, not at all like the Conservative and Reformed congregations that are more familiar to me, where many of the prayers are read in English.

Then it was time to take out the Torah.  We all stood and the familiar melodies of my childhood brought me back to a warm and comfy place in which I knew all the Hebrew words by heart.  Or perhaps the heat I was feeling was more attributable to the rising temperature of a room full of people, relieved only by the occasional breeze of the rear door opening and closing.  I took out my handkerchief and mopped my brow, happy that my sweat was not because of nerves this time.

The two Torahs, dressed in their finery, were carried up the aisle.  I touched each of them with my prayer book as it went by, then touched the book to my lips.  The ritual of kissing the Torah.  I asked the guy in front of me to reach me a khumash as the reader began the prayers introducing this week’s Torah portion, the final verses of Exodus.  Rather than follow along with the reading, I read the entire portion in the English translation, then went back and began to read it in Hebrew.

Taking a peek at the table of contents, I noticed that my khumash included not only the Pentateuch (the five Books of Moses), but also the five megillot (a Hebrew word meaning “scrolls”).  Now, when I hear the word megillah, I think of Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther that we read on the festival of Purim (coming up in two weeks).  I didn’t know there were four others!  Sure enough, the list included the Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and the Book of Ruth.  Of course, Ruth!  The book we read on the festival of Shavuot in June!  “Your people shall be my people and your God, my God.”  It was all coming back to me now.

While my nose was in the Bible, a gentleman whom I hadn’t noticed before slid up to me and asked me my name.  I told him.  Noticing the perplexed look on his face, I asked him if he wanted my Hebrew name.  He did, so I supplied it.

Next thing I knew, the guy sitting behind me was trying to get my attention.  “Psst!  You’re being called to the Torah!”

It’s not like there aren’t plenty enough men present whom they could call up to the Torah.  I’ve never been here before and these people don’t know me from Adam.  But I guess I should have figured that this would happen, as there is a tradition (stretching back to Abraham in the Book of Genesis) that the stranger in your midst is to be honored.  As to my efforts to blend into the woodwork:  Fail!

I’d been tugging and tugging on my tallis the entire time I had been sitting there, my best efforts unsuccessful at balancing the huge thing evenly about my shoulders.  If I stood up for a prayer, I would step on it.  When I sat back down, I would sit on it.  I got to my feet and began walking up the aisle to the reader’s stand, having narrowly avoided tripping over the tallis and falling on my face as I got out of my seat.

The prayer that is uttered before reading each section of Torah was printed on a laminated page on the reader’s desk.  The rabbi pointed to it and I began reciting.  “Wait!” he said.  I had totally forgotten that first I had to help unroll the scroll and touch my tallis to the first word that would be read.

Then it was time, and I sang out the familiar tune in as loud and clear a voice as I could muster.  I followed along as the cantor sang the verses, after which (I learned) it was time for the refuah sh’lemah, the prayer for healing.  This particular congregation has the tradition of offering the prayer individually for each person coming to the Torah — and for his family.  The cantor asked for my Hebrew name again.  I supplied it and then stood there dumbly.  I didn’t realize that they wanted me to name my family members.  After being gently coached by the rabbi, I said “my wife, my mother, my father, my sisters.”  I felt like an idiot, or like a Miss America contestant who was expected to intone “and world peace.”

As I returned to my seat, I heard a few men call out “Yasher koakh!” (congratulations) and I embarrassedly mumbled thanks.

The service continued and I began to feel pain in my lower back from alternating standing with sitting in a hard chair.  I continued to struggle with the recalcitrant tallis, noticing that it was quite stained, whether with tears or with wine I knew not.

After the regular service ended and a psalm was read, a brief discussion among the men ensued in which it was decided that they would proceed to pray the afternoon service immediately rather than returning to do so later.  I’d been too afraid to pull out my phone to check the time (simply not done in an Orthodox synagogue), but I turned around to look for a clock and noticed that it was nearly 1:00 pm.  I made a haphazard attempt at folding the giant tallis, left it on the back table and slipped out the rear door.  I had been there three hours and I knew my wife would be waiting for me in the car.

My wife could have attended the service, of course, but she is not at all comfortable sitting away from me, on the other side of the mekhitzah with the women, a non-Jew among ultra-Orthodox strangers.  I was glad to hear that she had taken a ride and picked up some breakfast.

“They’re not even done yet,” I told her as soon as I entered the car.  “They’re going to do the afternoon service and then first have Kiddush.  I think we should have our Kiddush at Olive Garden.”  My wife smirked and I knew there would be minestrone and salad in my immediate future.  “You stole their yarmulke,” she pointed out.  It was then that I realized that the black skullcap was still on my head.

While we were eating, we suddenly heard the voice of one of the servers boom out from across the room:  “Attention, Olive Garden!  We have a very special birthday in the house!  Please join me in singing to Ruth, who is 94 years old today!”

We looked over to the table at which the server was standing.  Along with the birthday girl were four or five of her friends, all very snazzily dressed, all of whom looked to be over the age of ninety.  My wife and I were both smiling broadly as we sang along and joined in the applause.

Happy birthday, Ruth!