We, in the Jewish community, are in deep mourning over the tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Innocent lives were taken and a community was shaken to its core. In times of crisis like this, we reach out to each other, through meetings and phone calls, emails and texts.
For us, as writers, one of the most meaningful ways we can connect to ourselves, to each other, and to all of you, is through our writing. Today, we offer our words of sadness, of fear, of vulnerability, and of hope for a brighter future.
On Sunday mornings I rehearse with a group of girls from fourth through seventh grade on a school musical that we are, please G-d, putting together for January.
The commute to the high school building where we rehearse is short, only about seven to eleven minutes, depending on lights and traffic. That’s one of the big perks of living in Cleveland. You can get to a lot of places in nearly no time at all.
When I’m in the car by myself, I like to listen to the news, and, out of habit, that’s what I tuned into on Sunday morning. Of course they were covering the massacre in Pittsburgh. Of course they were. As my eyes began to burn with the tears that were building up, I switched it off. I needed to pull it together for the tweens and teens that I was going to be rehearsing with.
At the school, the director of the musical checked in with me before rehearsal started.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, well, you know, not really, but yeah.”
We spoke briefly of our shock and horror before moving on to necessary points of business for the musical.
Rehearsal itself was, for the most part, a blessed escape from the news, because all my energy was devoted to being heard over energetic girls and doing my best to teach them their singing parts. They did a great job.
It was only mostly an escape because, as I was banging out the notes on the piano, I saw through the enormous windows of the rehearsal room (the school’s library), two police cars making their rounds over the course of the two-hour rehearsal time.
Their presence was both a comfort and a disconcerting reminder of the necessity of their patrols.
Later in the evening, we went as a family to see the movie Smallfoot. The weather was dismal, grey and rainy. I thought to myself, “good, it’s so gross out that no shooter will want to come kill anyone in the movies today.” We don’t go see movies on opening nights anymore, it makes my husband too nervous.
Sitting immediately in front of us was a father and daughter pair. About halfway through the movie, the father turned to me, and, for a brief moment, I thought he was going to say something about my daughter’s feet bumping his daughter’s seat. I was doing my best to make sure that wasn’t happening, but I always worry.
He only asked me if I could keep an eye on his daughter for a minute.
“Yeah, yeah, of course” I replied emphatically.
And then I got emotional. I lived in a world where eleven Jews were murdered in a synagogue at a bris on Shabbos. But I also lived in a world where a black father felt comfortable asking me to watch his daughter in a movie theater while he went to get some soda.
It made me feel like maybe, just maybe, things could still be okay.
At the feel-good conclusion of the movie (don’t worry, no spoilers), I started crying and couldn’t stop. I was sitting next to my daughter, frantically trying to discreetly wipe away my tears. I mean, I cry at everything (every single time I listen to Let it Go, I kid you not), so I don’t think it would have even been a thing for her, but I dislike crying in public.
It was a long day. I anticipate it will be a long week. And maybe beyond that, too, will be long.
I want to live in a world where a week is long because of endless carpools. I want to live in a world where feel-good conclusions of movies don’t seem wildly implausible. I want to live in a world where we can trust strangers in a movie theater to watch our kid for a couple minutes. I want to live in a world where my biggest challenge is getting twenty middle school girls to pay attention to the music I’m teaching.
I can’t pretend that I live in that world, but, in a way, that world can live in me. I can, and will, relentlessly focus on the good, on the hopeful. I will not shy away from or ignore the darkness, but I will fight against it in every way I know how.
As Jews, we have always lived in this precarious balance of darkness and light, and we are still here, we will always be here. And as long as we are here, we will make things better in whatever unique way we can.
This is America. Where we witness murder and try to analyze it so we could sleep at night. This is America. Where we live down the street from evil men but call them ill instead. This is America. Where people flee from persecution to be strangled by deeply bred prejudice. This is America. Where everyone is so disillusioned as to what humanity is, our government is broken. This is America. Broken.
This is America. Where murderers become more famous than heroes. This is America. Where “freedom” is a word we’ve used so much it has no meaning. This is America. Where adults would rather play Color War than solve problems. This is America. Where evil cannot be simply called evil. This is America. Evil.
This is America. Where hatred has permeated our society so much we do not know how to love. This is America.
Where mistrust has permeated our society so much we do not know how to build. This is America.
Where prejudice has permeated our society so much we do not know how to think. This is America. Where verbiage has permeated our society so much we do not know how to speak. This is America. Where evil has permeated our society so much we do not know how to act. This is America.
What does it mean that I’m not going to the vigil tonight, though I have no real reason not to, except for wanting to spend the evening with my children, my family?
What does it mean that I’m not going to the vigil tonight… though I’ve gone to memorials for slain children and marches for immigrants and tributes for cancer victims?
What does it mean that I’m not going to the vigil tonight, though I was born with Jewish blood pumping through my heart, Jewish faith filling up my chest, Jewish skin and nails and hair and grit?
What does it mean that I’m not going to the vigil tonight, though I’m broken and sad and scared that the hate we all knew was heading our way has finally arrived?
What does it mean that I’m not going to the vigil tonight, though my aunts were in camps in Libya, their swollen bellies pierced with Nazi poison to stop the breath of their unborn Jewish babies?
Why have I gathered and marched and spoken out for so many groups, and now, when it’s my own people we’re gathering for, I am home… with my family.
Have I grown distant from the Jewish community? Weary? Callous? Too assimilated to feel that deep ancestral connection?
Perhaps. Or perhaps it means I don’t need to go anywhere to grieve for Jewish victims, because they exist in my Jewish blood and faith and chest and skin and nails and hair and grit. And in my children… my frightened, vulnerable children who want to believe that Judaism is about costumes on Purim and candles on Shabbat and presents on Hanukah…. Not gas chambers or pogroms or dying on the floor of a synagogue you gathered at to celebrate a new life. A new Jewish life.
The truth is…. I don’t know what it means. I only know that I can ‘t bring myself to go. Can’t bear to leave my family on a cold dark night, when so many are without their beloved family members forever.
Instead, I will sit with them and we will hold each other and comfort each other. And, Yes, that pain will weigh on my soul and Yes, I will talk to my children about it and Yes, we will reflect on the lives that were lost… because all of that is a part of me… a part of us, a part of being Jewish.
But, as I remember the death, so too will I remember the life… those tiny little Jewish lives that they gathered to celebrate, those little Jewish hearts and souls that escaped bloody bullets and Nazi poison and the crushing weight of hate our people have carried for generations to be here… and I’ll raise a glass of hope to them, to us, to life.
Billye Joyce Roberts
That Kind of Black and Jewish
I’m not a morning person, so I often find myself saying the morning blessings and the blessings over the Torah on the Metro on the way in to work. I did that this morning, even though I was having a hard time focusing. Because… well… Pittsburgh.
But then I read: G-d is with me. I shall not fear.
I shall NOT FEAR.
I try not to let it be obvious that I have started crying… on a crowded Metro train. I can’t help myself.
I so desperately wish that I was not afraid. But I am.
More people. More of MY PEOPLE are dead. When my black brothers and sisters die, I feel it deep inside me. And yes, I am afraid. And I cry.
And now I have that same deep dread inside me for my Jewish brothers and sisters. 11 dead. Maybe I had foolishly hoped that half of me was, at least, sort of… safe. I know that’s silly. Because… well… Holocaust.
But this is my country. The land of my birth. This is my country. The greatest on earth. This… is my country? This? 11. 11. 11.
But… a synagogue in the United States of America should be safe. Shouldn’t it? Services should be safe. Shouldn’t they? A bris, oh dear heaven, should be more than safe. Shouldn’t it? Well, shouldn’t it?? Shouldn’t they all?
Shouldn’t we all?
My first thought when I heard was to hope that the baby was OK, well babies, I read it was twins. Poor little boys. Imagine growing up with that as the story of your bris.
I’ve been watching the news. Reading Facebook. Story after story. As if, if I kept watching, kept reading, one of the stories would be different. Please, G-d, please let one of them be different. But it didn’t happen. They were all horribly the same.
The thought flits across my mind that I should take the mezzuzah off my front door.
I admit it. I don’t want to die for G-d. And yet… I don’t want to die without Her either.
And one day, I expect they will come for the half of me that I can’t hide – the black half.
I decide I might as well leave the advertisement up for the other half of me – the Jewish half.
I’m stealing this from another hevria author: I will die with the Shema on my lips.
But this is mine: I am that kind of black– and Jewish.
I read the news, and read the news, and read the news — I am a consumer, not a first responder, or any type of responder — I can’t stop reading and reading, scrolling and scrolling — looking for information, looking to feel.
I am removed, emotionally un-stirred, oddly, and embarrassingly apathetic. Worst of all, I am not surprised. I am absent, an absentee voter in a country of which I am waiting to claim citizenship of.
I watch from afar, useless and unhelpful.
What’s this about? Gun control, anti-semitism, hate for the sake of hate?
Why can’t it be about humans first? Only humans, fragile and fleshy, humans.
Elderly, middle-aged, nacent and new, warm and loving — humans with families, and extended families, and communities —
By Monday, I am still reading — reading and scrolling, but I am unable to pray.
There are two security guards standing outside of my building — again, I am unphased.
Candles are lit, the book I pray from is the same as last week — the pages unstained by tears or blood alike.
I am safe, aren’t I? as a Jew, as a woman, as a person who stands in synagogue.
But where am I the safest?
Sitting behind a computer,
Reading, and reading, and reading.
I know many who own guns — guns that sit on top of their closets,
Unloaded, locked away, the safety lock on —
Safely locked, used for recreation, purely, kept for safety, purely.
But I promise I am still thinking of the humans.
Fleshy, delicate humans, each one an entire universe.
By Tuesday, I am no longer reading —
I am writing. I do not need to make excuses for feeling empty, angry,
But what happened to sadness? Where is sadness?
It’s Tuesday and I’m still thinking of the humans who G-d decided not to protect.
Fleshy, delicate humans, each one an entire universe.
Imagine, if you will,
You can take it whenever you want, and it never runs out.
When the pain hits, you just take it out of your pocket
and take a sniff.
In it goes, into the bloodstream.
And for a moment, the pain is gone.
Everything is gone.
Just the drug, that’s all that’s left.
that this drug convinces you that you’ve actually done something.
You’ve said something.
You’ve taken a stand.
Imagine that this helps too.
Makes you think you’ve mourned.
As your people were shot down.
And you wanted to cry.
But instead, the drug
let you escape
into a swirl of red lights,
and voiceless voices.
An imaginary world where real people exist,
and fake fights have real consequences,
but which exists
to help us
To live here, in this social media world,
where we all process our pain,
our broken hearts,
is a drug.
Where we can escape
to another world
where we can make a difference,
but which hides us from ourselves.
But all we really want,
and the reason we try to escape our wants,
is that we want to cry,
to let that fear and rage and confusion and pain eat into us,
so that we may enter,
for a moment,
the world of the victims.
But in the meantime,
we don’t allow ourselves that. Don’t take a moment,
rather we have our drug,
And even as we fight
Forget the victims.
Even as we share their names, their faces, their eyes,
are not real
because we only see them in two dimensions,
and not in the beyond-dimensions of the spiritual realm they have entered.
for one moment,
let us breathe,
let us escape the escape,
into our own souls
to discover theirs,
so that if we do need to come out and fight,
why we do.