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 is the author of five books, including Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture and The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia. He was the religion columnist for The New York Times from 2010 to 2016 and has written for The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Mother Jones, The Nation, and The Believer, among other publications. The host of Tablet magazine’s podcast Unorthodox, Oppenheimer has taught at Stanford, Wellesley, and Yale, where since 2006 he has directed the Yale Journalism Initiative. He lives with his family in New Haven, Connecticut.
“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
“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
“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
“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