Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood (Hardcover)

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Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood By Mark Oppenheimer Cover Image
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Staff Reviews

Director of the Yale Journalism Initiative Mark Oppenheimer goes behind the headlines of the tragic Tree of Life shooting to explore the fascinating community of Squirrel Hill, a walkable Pittsburgh neighborhood that has retained both religious and secular Jews when so many others have scattered to suburbs. Even the Tree of Life building itself was home to three congregations of different denominations. In Oppenheimer’s exhaustive interviews, he found a pathway to healing that doesn’t always happen after other mass shootings – there wasn’t a single post-event suicide connected to the incident, and there were no controversies over how money flowed to victims and their families. But there was a cost too, at least for some, as activism was played down in favor of unity. I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed Squirrel Hill, which is much more of an exploration of a community, rather than the crime drama or issue book you might have thought it was. There are so many interesting players in the story, not just the victims and their families, but folks like the Iranian student and his hugely successful fundraising efforts, and the young Christian woman who painted images in the Starbucks windows that became a symbolic center of the neighborhood. My top Hanukkah pick!

— Daniel Goldin


A piercing portrait of the struggles and triumphs of one of America's renowned Jewish neighborhoods in the wake of unspeakable tragedy that highlights the hopes, fears, and tensions all Americans must confront on the road to healing.

Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, is one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in the country, known for its tight-knit community and the profusion of multigenerational families. On October 27, 2018, a gunman killed eleven Jews who were worshipping at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill--the most deadly anti-Semitic attack in American history.
Many neighborhoods would be understandably subsumed by despair and recrimination after such an event, but not this one. Mark Oppenheimer poignantly shifts the focus away from the criminal and his crime, and instead presents the historic, spirited community at the center of this heartbreak. He speaks with residents and nonresidents, Jews and gentiles, survivors and witnesses, teenagers and seniors, activists and historians.
Together, these stories provide a kaleidoscopic and nuanced account of collective grief, love, support, and revival. But Oppenheimer also details the difficult dialogue and messy confrontations that Squirrel Hill had to face in the process of healing, and that are a necessary part of true growth and understanding in any community. He has reverently captured the vibrancy and caring that still characterize Squirrel Hill, and it is this phenomenal resilience that can provide inspiration to any place burdened with discrimination and hate.

About the Author

MARK OPPENHEIMER has been covering American religion for 25 years. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Yale, and has taught at Stanford, Wesleyan, Wellesley, NYU, Boston College, and Yale, where he was the founding director of the Yale Journalism Initiative. From 2010 to 2016, he wrote the "Beliefs" column, about religion, for The New York Times, and he has also written for publications including The New Yorker, The Nation, GQ, Slate, and many more. He created Unorthodox, the world's most popular podcast about Jewish life and culture, with over 7 million downloads to date. More recently, he hosted an eight-part podcast called Gatecrashers, about the history of Jews and antisemitism at Ivy League schools. He is the author of five books, including The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia and, most recently, Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, four daughters, one son, and two dogs.

Praise For…

“Propulsive . . . A poignant, deeply researched account of the Pittsburgh Jewish neighborhood in the aftermath of tragedy. Oppenheimer sets the scene with details even those familiar with the story might forget. . . . He does a lovely job of bringing the essence of this charming, walkable place to life. . . . How “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” became the site of the most deadly antisemitic attack on American soil and what happened afterward unfold with the precision of the best suspense stories. . . . Oppenheimer is sympathetic to the ways Jewish culture stands at the crossroads of proud resistance and self-protective withdrawal, bold activism and self-effacement. The people he highlights are treated with a knowing, affectionate wink, a landsman’s recognition.”—Irina Reyn, The New York Times

“[Oppenheimer’s] compelling exploration of [the Tree of Life synagogue shooting’s] impact on the community is by turns searing and compassionate. It is an emotionally draining terrain, flecked with occasional, unexpected pockets of consolation. But in placing this hate crime against our country’s patchwork canvas of faith, politics and violence, Oppenheimer provides a powerful meditation on the changing meaning of community and belonging in an age of disconnection and isolation.”—Diane Cole, The Washington Post

“Compelling . . . A well-researched book . . . Mr. Oppenheimer brings more expertise and knowledge to this project than most journalists or authors could, without being too close to his subject or blinded by his own pain or grief. He chose to focus on the community and its response to the shootings, and he chose well. . . . There are important lessons to be learned from Squirrel Hill, and we have Mark Oppenheimer to thank for capturing them in this readable and important book.”—Jared Cohon, The Wall Street Journal

“[A] rare narrative about how a community tiptoes through the wake of a hate crime.”—Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune

“This book focuses panoramically on the tragedy and those it touched. . . . Years from now, when people want to know what happened in Pittsburgh, this is the book to which they will probably turn.”—Jonathan Sarna, Jewish Review of Books

“One of the things Oppenheimer’s book illustrates so effectively is just how far out the concentric circles of pain can ripple. . . . [Squirrel Hill] is a welcome reminder that ‘baseless love’ can help keep a community together, as well as serve as a salve for the pain of individuals. Its lessons are not likely to prevent the next racial terror attack, but they contain some of the antibodies that could help a community to withstand an assault.”—David B. Green, Haaretz

Squirrel Hill . . . is a rich and important effort to write that day into history by showing us in vivid detail what the Jewish community endured and survived. . . . [Oppenheimer] brings the urgency and accuracy of superior journalism to his work, but he is also a gifted storyteller with open eyes and a big heart.”—Jonathan Kirsch, Jewish Journal

“In an even-handed but probing way, [Oppenheimer] focuses on how the community responded on the day of the shooting and throughout the year that followed. . . . For gentile readers like yours truly, he is a helpful guide to life in this Jewish community, which does not map easily onto any simple continuum.”—Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Sensitive and beautifully written . . . A stunning book that offers an eloquent portrait of an antisemitic attack and its effect on a neighborhood. . . . This book abounds with insights for cities facing the aftermath of any mass-casualty event.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Journalist Oppenheimer delivers a vivid and deeply empathetic look at Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood in the aftermath of the October 2018 mass killing of 11 worshippers at a local synagogue. . . . Deeply reported and elegantly written, this is a powerful portrait of grief and resilience.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A devastating story of loss that becomes a story of societal resilience; essential reading for anyone seeking insight on gun violence.”Library Journal

“[Oppenheimer’s] immersive account – which also sheds light on the attack’s antecedents, historical context, and especially its geographic setting — is granular in its detail, emotionally intimate and often moving.”—Julia M. Klein, The Forward

“Very solid reporting . . . It’s hard not to get emotional reading, and recounting, that terrible day in October 2018. An essential read on a quintessential Jewish American neighborhood.”—Emily Burack, Alma

“Brilliant . . . An emotionally engaging, quotation-filled, easy-reading and thorough account of the unusual Squirrel Hill neighborhood, its residents, the Oct. 27, 2018 attack, the victims and the reactions.”—Neal Gendler, American Jewish World

“A compelling read . . . Oppenheimer reports with candor and clarity . . . In focusing his lens on the individuals who are Squirrel Hill, Oppenheimer has created an inspiring portrait of a resilient and, yes, loving community. A community that is Stronger than Hate.”—Toby Tabachnick, Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle

“An evocative, empathetic and emotional account . . . [Oppenheimer] finds kindness in the darkness.”—Glenn C. Altschuler, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“A work of profound empathy . . . Oppenheimer isn’t interested in delving broadly into the psychology of mass killers, about which much has been written. In turning to the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill — and following what happens in it for the first year after the shooting — he ventures into much less well-trod territory. He takes on the complicated issues regarding whether and how people persevere, how those in a community sustain themselves and one another, after an episode of mass violence. He sheds light on the basic questions of what people do when confronted with choices of whether and how to intervene and help.”—Brian Slattery, New Haven Independent

“Meticulous reporting . . . A book for Jews (and Gentiles) everywhere . . . The best stories in Squirrel Hill are those of people who, face-to-face with the scourge of anti-Semitism, chose to become more Jewish, rather than less.”—Charles Fain Lehman, Commentary

“An inspiring story of a community coming together.”—Benyamin Cohen, The Forward

“[A] journalistic tour-de-force . . . Oppenheimer painted convincing portraits of contemporary American Jewish life.”—Donald H. Harrison, San Diego Jewish World

“Oppenheimer . . . is uniquely qualified to describe the shooting and its aftermath. . . . [Squirrel Hill] is likely to become the definitive study of the horrific massacre that attracted global attention.”—Rabbi A. James Rudin, Reform Judaism

Squirrel Hill is both inspiring and deflating. It’s a reminder of the persistence of one of the world’s oldest hatreds and of the resilience of its targets. It’s a celebration of an American Jewish community, and a lament for fading Jewish connections. . . . Oppenheimer’s book [is] a reminder that there is always more to the story.”—Andrew Silow-Carroll, The New York Jewish Week

“As a descendant of Pittsburgh family, a keen observer of American religious life, and a persistent, gregarious reporter, Oppenheimer has a unique combination of insight into the community and ability to explain the wider ramifications of its tragedy.”—Dan Friedman, HIAS

“Oppenheimer draws moving portraits of many of the neighborhood’s compassionate and community-minded members who provided a bulwark to the isolation and anomie gripping many other parts of the nation.”—Yonat Shimron, Religion News Service

Squirrel Hill isn’t a finished product, but rather a work in progress, a regenerating process whose best self is that which moves towards the place it wishes to be. . . .  [Oppenheimer] doesn’t shy away from writing about some of the hard stuff. . . . Though his family does have some ties to Pittsburgh, he understood his position as an outsider: digging in to get to know the place was something he recognized as a solemn responsibility.”—Jody DiPerna, Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism

“In October 2018, when a white nationalist terrorist carried out the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history, he tore at the fabric of one of the oldest and most dynamic Jewish communities in the country. He also unleashed the formidable pen of one of Squirrel Hill’s most talented and committed descendants. Mark Oppenheimer presents us now with a heartrending, polyphonic rendering of the multifaceted people and stories that populate this all-American enclave united by tremendous grief and resilience. A tour de force of compassionate listening that captures a specific community in the aftermath of unspeakable hate, in the process revealing the tragic superficiality of our supposed differences.”—Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of Self-Portrait in Black and White

“Judaism confers holiness on everyday life: family, community, neighborhood, prayer. A horrific tragedy like the Squirrel Hill massacre, when it comes to a strong community, cannot defeat these things. Mark Oppenheimer’s deeply reported and deeply felt book is a fitting memorial to the dead, and also a tribute to those left behind who found the strength to go on.”—Nicholas Lemann, former dean of Columbia Journalism School

“Returning to his family neighborhood in the days following the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, Mark Oppenheimer sets out to depict a unique Jewish place — and by extension Jewish life and community in present-day America. In this superlative work of exploratory journalism, he pursues the questions left behind after other reporters moved on from Squirrel Hill: how to go on, how to memorialize, and when rebuilding does and doesn’t make sense. In so doing he properly refocuses the narrative away from the killer, and back toward the experience of the victims, survivors, and community.”—Jacob Weisberg, author of The Bush Tragedy

“The comparison will seem august, but the work that kept coming to my mind as I read Mark Oppenheimer’s Squirrel Hill was John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Same engagement with mass killing through the words and lives of survivors. Same unassuming reportorial acumen. Same granular day-by-day, block-by-block sense of reality. Same candor. Same earned poignancy at the end. Agreed, the nuclear bombing of a city dwarfs mass murder in a synagogue, but it was a Jew who first wrote that he who destroys one life, it is as if he has destroyed the whole world, while he who saves one life, it is as if he has saved the whole world.”—Jack Miles, author of God in the Qur’an

“In Squirrel Hill, Mark Oppenheimer presents a window into the life of a neighborhood at the height of terror and just after. What we see is not only tragedy but also myriad sensitive renderings of memorable figures — the Jewish and Gentile elders, parents, teenagers; artisans, worshipers, and activists called by crisis to transform themselves and their community. Ultimately, this is a textured exploration of a key moment in Jewish life, in the life of a city, and in American life. Squirrel Hill is for anyone who seeks to understand the impossible question vexing our country today: how to persist after and amidst hate.”—Sanjena Sathian, author of Gold Diggers

“Mark Oppenheimer’s straight-up account of the 2018 massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue is where this story begins—before it becomes an intimate drama of a fiercely American and Jewish resistance to our nation’s new scourge of domestic terrorism.”—Jack Hitt, author of Bunch of Amateurs

“In Squirrel Hill, Mark Oppenheimer has written more than just the definitive account of a horrific tragedy. He has told a compassionate and compelling story about one of the most unique Jewish communities in America.”—Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein

Squirrel Hill is the remarkable, inspiring and beautifully told story about community, struggle, faith, hope and love. I don't think anyone but Mark Oppenheimer could have helped us better understand what it means to be a community in a time of tragedy, to foster hope in a time of despair and to practice love in a time of hate.”—James Martin, SJ, author of Learning to Pray

“The best portrait of a Jewish community in America since Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers. This book will speak for decades. With a remarkable and often quirky cast of characters from the coffee shops, synagogues, schools, and street corners of Squirrel Hill, Oppenheimer somehow tells the story of every Jewish American community.  We come to know them as neighbors. We feel their joys, we recognize their troubles, and increasingly we mourn their antisemitic tragedies. Squirrel Hill is the masterpiece account of 21st-century American Jewish life that I have been waiting for.”—Michael Alexander, author of Jazz Age Jews

Product Details
ISBN: 9780525657194
ISBN-10: 0525657193
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: October 5th, 2021
Pages: 320
Language: English