On Monday morning, following the massacre of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, my husband Joe, who’s Jewish, donned his reading glasses, bit his lip, and sat at our kitchen table filling out paperwork, so that our interfaith family could join a nearby temple.
We’d had the packet of documents or a while. Lily, our 10 year old, fasted (for the first time) on Yom Kippur, and Joe had found an afternoon kids’ service not far from our home, so he picked her up from school, and off they went. (I’d attended my usual, 90 minute Wednesday morning yoga class while also fasting, so by this time of the day, I’d collapsed into a nap.)
When that service ended up being for preschoolers, Lily and Joe instead got a temple tour from the educational director.
Hence the big white envelope of registration materials on our table.
For Lily has expressed an interest in having a bat mitzvah; and as we’ve explained to her, learning what’s necessary to run a service – a healthy portion of which involves speaking Hebrew – will take a few years.
But I’ll confess that while Saturday’s hate-fueled, anti-Semitic murders gave Joe a renewed sense of urgency about Lily’s Jewish education, I was struggling to get past my anxiety.
Because this is all new to me.
I grew up as just another white Protestant kid in a town filled with them. I hadn’t (knowingly, anyway) met a Jewish person until I started college at the University of Michigan.
It just so happened that one of the first ones I ever met ended up being my husband.
And as I’ve mentioned before, I’d thought Joe was being kind of dramatic and silly and paranoid when, during an interfaith couples workshop we signed up for early in our marriage (before we had kids), he mentioned that he’d want his kids to learn about Jewish history and culture because “they’ll need to know why some people in the world hate them.”
This stunned me. “Come on,” I’d thought. “We’re not living in Germany or Poland during the first decades of the twentieth century. We’re not in nineteenth century Russia. Times have changed, and we’re in America.”
I had a similar reaction when, upon moving to our small town, both Joe’s parents – one of whom was an atheist, the other a believer (who nonetheless didn’t bat an eye when all three children married non-Jews) – asked if there was a temple anywhere in the vicinity.
“All Jewish parents ask that,” Joe told me. “Traditionally, it’s an outward sign that the area will be more welcoming to Jews.”
Again, I thought, “Really? Aren’t we past all this stuff?”
Saturday’s massacre slapped me awake on that score.
But in the moment, I didn’t process it fully, because we were on our way to celebrate my grandmother-in-law’s 100th birthday.
Joe’s relatives from all over the country (including Hawaii) had traveled, gotten dressed up, and packed themselves into a dining room, boisterously talking and laughing, with drinks in-hand and arms draped around each other, as they do at just about every occasion.
And I do mean EVERY occasion. Joe’s extended family makes a point of showing up and being together, whether it’s at a wedding, a bar or bat mitzvah, a funeral, or a significant milestone. I often joke about how these family gatherings are never just the one event, but additionally the Friday night pre-dinner and the Sunday morning post-brunch, too.
This pattern almost always applies. It’s a long-established family ritual. But I think it got that way because the family very much values being emotionally close, even if they can’t be geographically so. They simply revel in being in each other’s company. And years ago, they took me in without hesitation.
That means something to me, particularly because, well, let’s just say that not everyone in my family cares for my company; and after my mom – the emotional nucleus of my original clan – died in 2009, I felt a bit like an electron loosed upon the atmosphere, angling to feel that connective tug once again.
Joe’s family happily, immediately absorbed me. All together, we may resemble an ion more than a stable atom, but I adore them, and I’ve come to love and look forward to their loud gatherings.
Mostly, though, I love that no matter what, they come running to support and spend time with each other.
What does all this have to do with them being Jewish? Nothing, really. But it did seem striking that, by coincidence, on a day of a soul-crushing tragedy committed against Jews, this Jewish family had come together to celebrate the long, admirable life of its eldest matriarch.
A woman who’s traveled the world; studied harp performance; committed a lifetime of quiet-but-significant acts of compassion; fed her voracious intellectual curiosity; and carried herself with regal dignity, even in the face of losing a husband, a son, and many dear friends.
So I decided to just focus on her for the day, postponing the grief, fear, and anger I knew I’d eventually feel upon learning more about what had unfolded in Pittsburgh.
Because how could I read about how this terrorist yelled “All Jews must die!” without seeing, in my mind’s eye, all the faces of this warm, loving family that’s taken me in? Or even the faces of my own children?
I can’t. Which is why I didn’t want to, why I couldn’t, read about it for a while.
But seeing Joe’s strength and resolve on Monday morning, as he filled out the temple’s paperwork, reminded me of his words in that workshop. If you take the long view on history, this isn’t new. My being part of it is.
I have no choice now but to learn – from Joe, from his family, from Jews everywhere – how to not lose my courage.
And how to keep going in the face of hate.