Roots forged in steel


Pittsburgh has a strong draw on its natives and anyone who has spent much time in the city once known for its steel mills. We’ve learned about this in the past few weeks as people worldwide have mourned the tragic deaths at Tree of Life synagogue. From the Rhode Islanders who either grew up in Pittsburgh or spent time there, to the journalists who have written eloquently about their connections to Squirrel Hill and greater Pittsburgh, we have heard much about the solid sense of community in the Steel City.

Even if you left the city willingly, to never return, Pittsburgh is a city that never leaves you. I guess you could say, once a Pittsburgher, always a Pittsburgher.

That became especially evident to me as I watched the horrific events unfold in Squirrel Hill.

You see, I was born in Pittsburgh. My entire family is from Pittsburgh. These roots go back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when my family arrived from Russia, Ukraine, Austria-Hungary and Germany.

No matter what port they entered through – and most came in from Canada – they ended up in the greater Pittsburgh area.

Pittsburgh’s pull is a little difficult to explain. But whenever I’m asked where I’m from, my answer has always been, “My family is from Pittsburgh, but I grew up in suburban D.C.” I left Pittsburgh in grade school, but I never considered the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., as my primary roots. I always returned to Pittsburgh for holidays and in the summer. I suspect I know Squirrel Hill better than the area of Virginia where I spent many more years. 

Like mine, my parents’ ties to Pittsburgh have never been severed. My mother still reads Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s online edition. My folks root for the Pittsburgh sports teams.

When it came time for college, my son chose the University of Pittsburgh. He said it was in familiar territory. And he developed a treasured relationship with his great-grandmother, who lived near the campus after leaving a house in Squirrel Hill for an apartment in Oakland.

Our daughter chose Penn State. No, not Pitt, but her first roommate was from Pittsburgh.

There is no changing this heritage.

And while nobody in my immediate family attended Tree of Life synagogue, everyone knew someone who went there. In Squirrel Hill, we lived less than a mile from Tree of Life. So did my grandparents and other family members.

We all hope that mass shootings will never become commonplace, but they are happening more often. Anti-Semitism is also on the rise. If you don’t see it or hear about it in your daily life, you have surely read about the increasing incidents in media reports and in studies and surveys. And now, Pittsburgh is forever seared into our consciousness.

The Jews who went to Shabbat services on a fall morning in Squirrel Hill never dreamed that they needed to be prepared for anything other than the peace of prayer. Now we know differently. But we cannot let that change our routines and daily life.

I refuse to be fearful. I refuse to change the way I live or worship or express myself. 

And I am resolved more  than ever before to push for understanding and civility and a shared sense of community, where everyone feels welcome, just like where I grew up – Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill.