April 12, 2021

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Crossing the Rubicon in Squirrel Hill (Judean Rose)

The hardest part of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life massacre, for those of us with roots in Squirrel Hill, was waiting for the names. In Israel, we’re resigned to the idea that we must wait for the inevitable roll call of victims after every terror attack. And even though the wait seems interminable we know that it’s about the need to inform the families first before releasing the information to the press. You don’t want to find out the worst possible news by reading about it online or hearing it on TV, God forbid.

But the lack of information creates a terrible anxiety for those who know they might be touched by tragedy—it’s just that they just don’t know it yet.

And here was my idyllic childhood neighborhood, splashed all over the news. Though I left Pittsburgh at 18 to live in Israel, that anxiety was not lessened by time or proximity. I obsessed, went from website to website, watching the live coverage and footage for hours, shocked to see streets as familiar to me as my own face in the mainstream media, no matter where I turned. Every major outlet was covering this story.

It’s not like I’m from a place that everyone’s heard of, a big, busy city like Boston or LA. When people ask where I’m from, and I tell them, their expectant faces go blank. They literally have nothing to say. They don’t know anyone from Pittsburgh. They’ve never heard of someone from Pittsburgh. The most they usually manage is a bland and meaningless, “Aha,” or “Very nice.”

I took a screenshot of the Google map at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with its marker showing the location of Tree of Life. I added a small red circle to show where the home I grew up in was situated relative to the synagogue. I wanted to show my family members. “Look how close I lived to what has happened!”

Distance from Tree of Life to my childhood home 
I needed to make them feel just how personal this was.

As if they didn’t know.

Actually, it was my soldier son who saw the news first and called us before we’d even said Havdalah. He was worried that my brother, his uncle, might be among the victims. At least on that score, I was able to reassure him. My brother is orthodox. He wouldn’t have been there on that terrible day.

But what my kids couldn’t possibly take in was what Squirrel Hill means to me, what it symbolizes in my heart. It’s the place where you could walk at night without fear, and leave the side door unlocked. It’s the old fashioned soda fountain at Mr. Frye’s drugstore on the corner of Northumberland and my street, Asbury Place, where you could get a chocolate phosphate or a cherry coke, way into the 70s.

We didn’t actually buy our drugs at that drugstore, there were cheaper places for that. But we all bought our penny candy there. My mom would give me a penny and I would press my nose to the glass, to make that agonizing, all important choice. Usually, I would buy a vanilla Tootsie Roll or perhaps dots, those pastel candies you scraped off the paper with your teeth. Occasionally, I even bought one of those wax bottles filled with sweet liquid. But best of all was Turkish Taffy, preferably banana flavor. You’d slam it on the sidewalk outside the drugstore, still in its wrapper, in order to break the rock hard candy into manageable pieces. Then you’d share the sweet shards with your friends, and play on the monkey bars, which is what we called the heavy copper guard rails next to the steps that led from the raised Northumberland shopping area to the sidewalk below.

Perhaps those double bars were meant to keep people from falling off and getting hurt, but to us, they were an entire playground in and of themselves, though they were only about 4 feet high and 6 feet long. We’d wrap ourselves around them and swing in all kinds of creative ways. All the while gorging ourselves on candy.

When we got bored with swinging on the monkey bars, we’d go across the street to the combination police and fire station and chat with the firemen, who in nice weather, would sit outside. They knew our names, which is why every time I walked by, one of them would break into song, “I dream of Jeannie with the light bro-own hair.”

My hair was blond, but my middle name was Jean. That was close enough.

The policemen, if we begged long enough and hard enough, would consent to lock us up in one of the three holding cells. That was the best of times. We’d bang on the bars with a tin cup and beg to be released, wanting to stay in as long as we possibly could. And between the fire station and the residential section of the street was this shady little alleyway where we could seek respite from the summer sun or hide during hide and go seek.

Sometimes, we’d go visit the little Italian shoemaker. He didn’t speak English very well, but he always smiled at us. One time my mom brought in a pair of Ferragamo shoes to be repaired and his eyes lit up with delight. In halting English, he told my mother that he had worked in the Ferragamo factory in Italy, it was there he’d learned his craft. He was so happy, caressing the leather of those shoes, looking back on his youth. He could fix shoes in any state of disrepair. He was a magician.

And then there was Zuckerman’s, the little mom and pop store. My mom could send me down the street to buy things. I’d collect the items, wait my turn and when old Mrs. Zuckerman rang up my bill, I’d nonchalantly say, “Charge it.”

After Mrs. Zuckerman died, her son opened a children’s shoe store inside of Newman’s, a children’s clothing shop on Forbes Ave. It turned out that all along, he’d dreamed of having a children’s shoe store. And Mr. Zuckerman was the best children’s shoe salesman ever! He just blossomed in that store. It made us so happy to see him that way.

Back on Asbury Place, there were trees on the street that I loved to peel, the bark coming off in such pleasing segments. There were cracks in the sidewalk where I liked to dig with a stick. I liked to find potato bugs and watch them curl and unfurl, or at night, in summer, to hold a lightning bug in my hand, and see it flash so quietly, by magic.

If the delights of Asbury Place failed to interest, there was always Ferree Street, which was a brick-paved street that ran straight into my home. I loved the moment when my mom drove up Ferree, and hesitated at the rise, where our home became suddenly visible with its red brick siding and gated staircase, painted white. Only then would we begin the slow descent to the bottom of the street and pull into the driveway of our home. It was like a breathless royal entrance. As if we approached a palace with a moat.

My mother and I posing before my piano recital in front of our home at 1523 Asbury Place.
The children of Asbury and Ferree were natural playmates and companions. The two streets were the boundaries of our friendships, for the most part. We played stickball, and put on shows. Played in each other homes.

Children from Asbury Place pose together on Ferree Street. Front row left, the author, right Miles Kirshner, back row from left, the author’s sister Margery Haber, Bruce Landman, Jonnie Daniels (photo credit: Howie Daniels–he snapped this with his Brownie!)
This was my neighborhood, a place where during the High Holidays, everyone got dressed in their nice clothes and walked to shul. We’d see each other and notice what we were wearing. We got Hershey bars on Simchas Torah, and left the shul during Yizkor, when we’d find all sorts of secret corridors inside Beth Shalom Synagogue, a place where my parents had met and married, where my mom, as a little girl took dance classes in the basement from Gene Kelly, his imperious mom holding out her hand for each child’s nickel every week.
It was a hardship for my grandmother, during the Depression, to come up with the money for those lessons, but miracle of miracles, a year of lessons with Gene cured my mom, who started out bow-legged and ended up with legs to envy. It was no surprise to anyone that Gene went to Hollywood and became famous.

My parents on their wedding day, in front of my grandparents’ house on Alderson Street, in Squirrel Hill.
This was my neighborhood, and the names of the people in that neighborhood were a part of my consciousness, going way back. And now I was waiting to hear which of those wonderful people, woven into the very fabric of my being, had been brutally murdered, just for being Jews in shul.

And when the dreaded names were announced at last, there it was, the person whose name I knew. Rose Mallinger, 97. Rose Mallinger of Ferree Street, a contemporary of my mother, whose children, now grown, had played stickball in the street with my brother.

The knowledge brought no relief. A gunman had taken actual aim at an inoffensive senior, stealing what was left of her life and those of ten other harmless, blameless people (including brothers with intellectual disabilities). In so doing, Robert Bowers, may his name and memory be erased, had not just committed murder, targeting some of the weakest sectors of society, he’d violated the very sanctity of a neighborhood, where Jews had been happy, had always felt right at home.

People are always kind and careful in the aftermath, reaching out with notes or messages. They’d never really thought about Pittsburgh before. But they saw this was huge and painful.

I can’t take you back to my childhood with me, to the streets where I played, where Rose Mallinger, seeing it was getting dark outside, would call to her children to come inside, it’s getting late. All I can do is rehash the memories before you, and mourn the end of an era.

The Jews of Squirrel Hill were safe for 100 years. And then, one day, they were not.

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