The innocuous question we all hate to answer
We are all transformed by the shooting here in Pittsburgh, in big ways and small.
“So, where are you from?”
It is really the most innocuous of questions. At least, it was for me until a few months ago.
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“Ohhhhhhhhh. I’m sorry. That must be hard.”
This is what it is like to be a rabbi from Pittsburgh in the wake of the Oct. 27th shooting. At a convention in Denver; at a retreat in Allentown; at a family bat mitzvah in San Diego; when I visit Erie to lead a small congregation there; the conversation with strangers often comes back to this. People see my kippah and they know I’m a Jew. And when people hear that I’m a Jew from Pittsburgh, well, the responses are almost uniformly cringeworthy.
“Oh, that’s terrible.”
“Wow, were you close?”
“Did you know any of the victims?”
“You must be afraid.”
What do I say to these seemingly well-meaning individuals? Do they want to engage on this topic? Do I? Is this going to be a polite conversation, like that time at the bar with the three strangers, before they turned back to their drinks and searched for a segue to another, less intense topic? Or is it going to be excruciating and awkward, like the bar mitzvah guest who proclaimed the need for every congregant to come to shul armed to the teeth? Will I be shown eyes of compassion from a woman at a suburban JCC? Or will my new address be used by a total stranger as a pivot to his own opinion, based in misinformation, telling me I should thank God the president is keeping us all safe from all those terrorists trying to infiltrate from Mexico?
Most Jewish Pittsburghers have been here for a few years, or decades, or even generations, and have fond memories of Pittsburgh through the years. They swap stories at kiddush about delis they used to love or that time they saw Willie Stargell on Penn Ave. in a Cadillac. Me? My family and I arrived here in late August; we bought a house and moved in on Oct. 21st. Six days later, a white supremacist who was radicalized over the internet shot up the synagogue three blocks from my own.
I’m probably like you: Being Jewish in Pittsburgh is about a lot of things, and almost all of them are great. I love seeing chalk drawings of the Shabbat times on Murray Avenue or being told to look for somebody’s grandfather in the 1954 Confirmation photo at the shul in Erie. I’ve been here less than a year, and I already have four favorite restaurants. And there’s nothing more majestic to me than a big, yellow bridge.
But for the rest of the country, when they see my kippah and hear where I’m from, it means a whole different thing. I’ve learned to accept it — to steel myself for it, even. I hope that when I tell a person where I’m from, they can engage me with a level of compassion and an attempt to gain understanding. But that isn’t always the case.
We are all transformed by the shooting here in Pittsburgh, in big ways and small. In one simple way, though, we are emissaries of a reality that others do not comprehend. We have obtained a kind of intimate knowledge of communal tragedy that others do not have.
That status conveys upon us a sacred responsibility to represent Pittsburgh as a real place with history, diversity, complexity and community. But it also requires us to be able to frame the shooting for the person we’re speaking with from somewhere else.
Whenever we speak to somebody else about Pittsburgh, that person projects their own feelings and emotions onto us and expects that we’ll reflect their own opinion back to them. It doesn’t have to be that way. Each of us can control our own narrative of what Pittsburgh is and what the shooting means to us. Pittsburgh is ours to transmit. We need to be able to explain what a wonderful and warm community it is. We also each need to choose an aspect of the tragedy to impart to others, as our sacred duty to educate and lift up. Maybe it’s the sadness we felt at a funeral or a shiva of one of the victims, or how we knew one of them and the way they inspired us. Maybe we are frustrated by our newfound feelings of vulnerability in synagogue. Maybe we are angry that our political leaders do nothing about mass shootings and hate-speech. Whatever it is, we own it. It is our narrative.
Next week, I’m off to Portland. I expect many people will ask me “the question.” I will do my best to thoughtfully absorb the way they react. And then I will tell them how wonderful Pittsburgh is and how it is so much more than one horrific moment. And then I will try to invite them into a conversation about what they think the shooting means. And I will tell them what I think the shooting meant, and continues to mean.
We Jewish Pittsburghers may be stuck answering uncomfortable questions in regards to our hometown for the foreseeable future. But we should always remember that we are the ones who get to choose how we answer, and we are the ones who write the narrative of who we choose to be. pjc
Mark Asher Goodman is a rabbi and writer in Pittsburgh.