by Carolyn Bick
“Jesus. Active shooter at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.”
Surrounded by shadows created by the early Saturday morning light filtering into the bedroom, I stare at my mother’s text. Grief sticks in my throat like a bone. She doesn’t say it, and neither do I, but I say it later to my husband: “I’m not surprised. I was just waiting for it, that’s all.”
I was still asleep when the shooter burst into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue at 9:50 a.m., Eastern time, on Oct. 27. Survivors said he yelled, “All Jews must die!” before opening fire on the gathered congregation with his semi-automatic rifle and three semi-automatic pistols. All told, he killed 11 people and wounded seven others, including four officers who responded to the emergency call. The youngest person who died was 54; the oldest, 97.
There are things related to my Judaism that I try not to think about. Two of these things have stalked me like a waking nightmare for the past two years. I am afraid someone will walk into my father’s clinic, and start shooting, or set fire to my parents’ house. I know, it sounds ridiculous, right? At the end of the day, we’re white people with no visible signs of our identities. Unless I’m wearing a Star of David or a yamaka, a skullcap, or praying in a synagogue, there’s no way to know that I am Jewish.
Unlike most of the rest of the world — including Western nations like England, France, and Iceland — American Jews are relatively freer to be open about who we are, and can, by and large, get through the day without suffering violence or backlash. But like most of the American Jews I know, my parents don’t broadcast their Judaism. They don’t hide it, if it comes up, but it’s not exactly a conversation-starter. I’m the same way and have shrugged off the low-key anti-Semitism I’ve dealt with most of my life.
What I mean when I say “low-key anti-Semitism” are things like little gibes about ovens or showers occasionally lobbed around a classroom, or being laughed at for reading the part of Anne Frank in English class. I laughed along with my classmates, because what else was I supposed to do?
“Like, oh, it’s a funny joke, you know? As a student, I went along with it, because I felt there was no other option for me to do, but laugh and go along,” Sefira Lightstone says over the phone. She’s telling me about the anti-Semitism she experienced in high school. “And Nazi symbols drawn in my yearbook — and then the same kids, crossing them out, and being like, ‘Just kidding!’”
Lightstone, 30, and her husband live in the Columbia City area. She’s a freelance illustrator. Her husband works for T-Mobile as a web developer. The day of the attack in Pittsburgh, Lightstone was surprised when a follower pushed back on her post expressing her grief on Instagram. A woman from the United Kingdom messaged her, noting that Christopher Columbus committed horrible atrocities against Indigenous people when he came to the Americas.
“And I was like, ‘That’s horrible, but why are you talking to me about this now? That’s not what I am referring to,’” Lightstone says. “And she said, ‘Well, other people suffer, as well.’ And what that does — that silences us. That tells us we’re not allowed to talk about what we go through, because we don’t matter. We’re not unique. And that silences the suffering.”
But this sort of backlash isn’t new for Lightstone. She also faced it in high school, even from good friends who also came from a background of persecution. She believes it comes from a fundamental misunderstanding that anti-Semitism no longer exists.
“There’s a perception that the Holocaust is over, and nobody hates Jews anymore, and that’s completely wrong,” Lightstone says. “This isn’t to say that other people’s persecutions don’t matter, but it didn’t go away. The Holocaust didn’t change anything.”
Brought up in an Orthodox household since she was a young teenager, going to Chabad schools after high school, and following a Judaism-based career path, Lightstone has lived in a self-described “bubble” of Judaism for most of her adult life, which means she hasn’t been the recent subject of direct anti-Semitism. Still, for her, as with myself, there isn’t a “before and after” feeling attached to the Pittsburgh attack. She, too, was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“I’ve always recognized that there have been anti-Semitic acts against Jews, and Jew-hatred that exists in the world, and it hasn’t been so obvious in the United States,” Lightstone says. “It is a different thing to be an American Jew than it is to be a Jew in the rest of the world. I’ve had friends in England who have been like, ‘You can’t tell everybody that you’re Jewish, because people will treat you differently.’”
Still, despite the relative comfort of Jews in the United States, Lightstone has always been cautious: “I’ve known that, one day, that is going to change. It’s kind of negative, but it’s also a wariness — how long is that comfort going to last for us, as Jews in this country? I know that not everyone would agree with me, and I will be happy, if that doesn’t happen.”
Lightstone isn’t wrong to be concerned. According to FBI reports, despite making up just 2 percent of the country’s population, Jews account for more than 50 percent of Americans targeted for religious hate crimes.
Bella Maslyak and her family came to the United States from the Ukraine in 1991. In the Ukraine, she says, it was forbidden to practice any sort of religion, but it was particularly dangerous to be Jewish. Her family didn’t talk about their faith outside their home, and her parents made sure to work on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, in order to avoid repercussions from their bosses. They couldn’t advance in their careers, she says, and had to pay to go to universities that were government-subsidized for everyone else under Soviet rule.
“I remember my parents’ stories. My dad, for example, was discriminated against. I don’t remember exactly when it was, they were shouting on the street — people were shouting on the street, ‘Jews go home’,” the 43-year-old recalls.
Even though Maslyak’s family didn’t speak outright about their Judaism, when she was growing up, “I always knew that I was Jewish, just because of how other people were treating me.”
So it was strange to Maslyak that when she and her family came to the United States, they could safely walk to synagogue on Saturdays. People even smiled at them, she remembers.
But Maslyak’s comfort in the United States is relative. She will not go into the Seattle Jewish Federation building, after the 2006 shooting that left one woman dead and five others wounded. She says it’s because she has no reason to go inside, but she also admits the memory of the incident serves as just another reminder that Jews aren’t truly safe anywhere.
And that’s what the Tree of Life shooting is for Maslyak, too. It’s sad, she says, but it did not hit her as closely as the 2006 shooting did, probably because of the geographical distance. And unlike Lightstone, Maslyak sounds resigned.
“It did remind me that things are going to happen anywhere. There was a reminder, but because I choose not to dwell on the past, I just think that, ‘What else can be done?’” Maslyak says, adding that she feels safer, now that synagogues are increasing their security measures.
I’m not sure if I wholly believe Maslyak, when she said she doesn’t dwell on the past, though. Before we hang up, Maslyak tells me she doesn’t feel safe wearing her Star of David outside Jewish events.
Kadima Reconstructionist Community Rabbi David Basior is out of breath, when he answers the phone. He’s walking around Seward Park, he says, before heading to temple for an 11 a.m. class. Basior is less conservative than either Lightstone, an Orthodox Jew, or Maslyak, who classifies herself somewhere between Conservative and Reform. Still, he tries to observe the Sabbath in the more traditional way, by turning off his phone and staying away from technology, which is why he didn’t hear about the shooting until later in the day.
Basior says he arrived home with one of his kids to find a note on the door from Kadima’s Board President. All it said was, “I need to talk with you ASAP about the community response to Pittsburgh.”
And that was it. No context. No explanation.
So, he asked his neighbors, and from there, the events unfolded, leaving him with “a nice cocktail of many of the appropriate emotions,” anger, fear, deep sadness, and shock rolling through his body.
But Basior also found himself trying to couch his emotions with caveats, telling himself that this wasn’t the only bad thing to have happened. For instance, the same day at a Kroger in Kentucky, two Black people were shot and killed in an apparently racially motivated attack. The suspect had tried to enter a predominantly Black church just minutes before. And across the nation, others are constantly fighting for survival, because of the way the white-dominated system treats them, based on their heritage or skin color.
I, too, had tried to lessen my own grief and the personal meaning of what had happened by essentially saying that it wasn’t so bad, compared to what happens to other persecuted groups.
“I’m not trying to be ridiculous. We don’t have it as bad as other people, and we need to keep that in mind,” I remember telling my husband the morning of the attack, going on to talk about the atrocities that others suffer on a daily basis.
I also remember keeping my back to him so he can’t see that I was crying, anyway.
So, as I listen to Basior speak days after the fact, I feel shame mixed with relief that I was not the only Jew to react this way. I also start to wonder if part of the reason I feel this way is because I have, in some subtle ways, unconsciously bought into the narrative that post-Holocaust, Jews no longer should or can claim victimhood — that we must remain silent.
“A part of me just wanted to be like, ‘Well, lots of bad things are happening, and this was just part of that.’ And there is a way in which I completely believe that. And there’s another way in which I noticed I was couching my own desire to actually just dwell that this happened,” Basior says. “It happened at a synagogue, and was directly an attack against Jews by someone espousing deeply violent, anti-Semitic comments that were celebrated probably by many in a particular subset of our nation.”
The next night, Sunday, Oct. 28, Kadima held a gathering for the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting. Despite the gathering being held at the last minute, he says he was touched by the number of people who showed up, including two Muslim women who spoke in support. In his own speech to the gathered, Basior says they are a community committed to solidarity and intersectionality, one that understands that Jews don’t exist in a bubble, and can’t be free, until all are free.
“But just for right now, let’s feel what it is to have been a direct attack against Jewish people,” Basior says, recalling his words.
After I get off the phone with Basior, I bury myself in work for the rest of the day. But that night, I allow myself to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.
A week later, I read that an arsonist has set fire to seven New York synagogues and Jewish schools, and vandals have spray painted “Kill All Jews” in another synagogue in the same borough.
It’s like my mom says: “We always get it in the neck.”
Featured Photo: Community members filled Temple De Hirsch Sinai to capacity in October for the Seattle Community Vigil for Pittsburgh. (Photo: Susan Fried)