A Saturday night vigil for Pittsburgh with Carlebach music? Nah, I thought. It’ll be maudlin kumbaya stuff. Not at all my kind of thing. And certainly not my kind of music.
But after the fifth ex-Pittsburgher in Israel forwarded me the same invitation from Dr. Robert (Reuven) Schwartz, I began to have a change of heart. I did need a way to process the event. I’d found myself a bit weepy from time to time as I read the various news items relating to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
I’d spot my next door neighbor in a photo, a pallbearer at the funeral of one of the Rosenthal brothers, and a tear would leak out. I’d see the name of the guy who is being inundated with orders from all over the world for deli trays for the shiva homes (London, Paris!), and I’d be like, “Oh my God. I KNOW that guy. And he’s in the Wall Street Journal.”
I was seeing photos of my innocent little neighborhood, which no one had heard of before, splashed all over the media. There were all the places I’d known so well: Pinskers, Beth Shalom, Murray Avenue Kosher, the library I’d frequented growing up. It was unending. It was everywhere. The effect was of cognitive dissonance.
I just couldn’t put the two together: Squirrel Hill/Bloodshed.
Maybe before, you didn’t know Squirrel Hill was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. But I did. My childhood home was equidistant between Mr. Rogers’ house and the Tree of Life Synagogue, two blocks in either direction. And so I found myself caught somewhere hanging in between that innocence and that bloodshed all the way here in Israel.
Fred Rogers, late 60’s.
I was not at all able to shake off the shock of it all, or the sadness.
Well, it’s the prerogative of a woman to change her mind, and so I let Reuven know I’d be there.
I had never met Reuven before, but I have to give the guy kudos, he put the vigil together quickly and he did a great job. The crowd at Pardes was overflowing. Reuven’s wife Amy opened the event by lighting 11 candles and reciting the names of the victims. Then we viewed the CNN clip of Anderson Cooper remembering the victims, one by one.
There’d be two speakers, then a couple of songs, then two more speakers, and so forth.
Dr. Richard (Reuven) Schwartz, Pittsburgh Vigil in Israel, Pardes, Yerushalayim (credit Esther (Bobbi) Wasserman Gordon)
Each speaker chose a different focus. One spoke of her childhood, others read essays from friends and family members of victims in Pittsburgh. Another gave a helpful update on the conditions of the wounded. But each returned to the same theme: how unbelievable it was that such a thing happened in “our” neighborhood. Even here in Israel, so far away, it was a terrible violation.
When it was my turn at the podium, I began by offering the crowd my Pittsburgh creds: “I’m a third-generation-born Pittsburgher. My maternal grandmother was born there. And I’m the niece of Myron Cope,” an excited murmur swept the crowd.
“Hence, the colors,” I continued, motioning to my outfit.
They laughed. I was in black and yellow, the colors of the Steelers, the colors of Pittsburgh.
I guess I should explain. Because at this point, you must be wondering. Who the heck is “Myron Cope?”
Myron Cope was color commentator for the Steelers. His radio broadcasts of the games were so popular that Pittsburghers watched the games on television with the sound turned off, their radios tuned to “Mahrn,” with his excited Pittsburghese, rolled ‘l’s, and exclamations of “Double Yoi!” and “Hmm HAH!”
A young Myron Cope playing saxophone, front seated, right (family photo: Varda Epstein)
A young Myron Cope (family photo: Varda Epstein)
Myron Cope is the guy who invented the Terrible Towel and then donated the proceeds to a special needs school. Today lots of sports teams wave towels, but it all began with my uncle and the need to create a gimmick that would play well with Pittsburgh sports fans. And everyone in Pittsburgh is a sports fan.
He’s the most famous man in Pittsburgh, though he’s been gone a decade.
In Israel, meanwhile, no one has ever heard of the guy. And so the first thing I do when I meet a Pittsburgher, is name drop. And I’m telling you, they go NUTS.
It makes me so proud. And it gives me something nice to tell my mom in our phone conversations. It’s her little brother, she keeps a file of Myron memorabilia, all his clippings, and articles about him. She has a signed, framed Terrible Towel, hanging in the hallway.
And she misses him. We all do. So did the people in that room in Jerusalem on a Saturday night.
It was right that his name be spoken at that vigil. It fit. But I wasn’t there to talk about Myron. I was there to talk about Rose Mallinger, my neighbor. Here is what I said that evening:
Jewish continuity. That is what the evil monster saw that day when he walked into the sanctuary and aimed his gun. That was what he meant to destroy. He knew it when he saw it. Saw an elderly mother and grandmother, her daughter alongside her in shul and understood the power of that scenario. The refusal of our people to give up our heritage, no matter what they do to us, in every generation.
Rose Mallinger, 97, was my neighbor. She lived on Ferree, just up the street from my childhood home on Asbury, all the years of my childhood. When I picture her, I see a be-aproned woman in middle age, spry and quick, a woman with presence, a mom. I can hear her the particular quality of her voice, a little throaty, on summer nights, calling her kids in from the street, where we all played stickball or waited in line for ice balls.
When I heard the dreadful news, and it was still in the stage where we didn’t yet know the names or many of the details, three horrible thoughts percolated through my mind. First, that it happened in Squirrel Hill, a place that had always been a warm and safe Jewish haven. Second, the thankfully unfounded fear that a newborn infant might be among the victims. Finally, the idea that a senior had been brutally murdered, someone well up into her 90s, a woman.
There’s a horror connected to that fact that stings us particularly hard: the idea that someone could pick up a gun and target and shoot an elderly woman who never harmed a flea. Rose was murdered for one reason only: because she was a Jew in shul.
To her family, she meant everything. To her murderer, her life meant nothing. But her presence there signified Jewish continuity: a woman who strove to go to shul on Shabbos, even at 97. Her daughter there beside her, was proof that her offspring would continue in her heritage, continue in her faith.
And that could not be countenanced.
I knew most of this a week ago tonight. What I did not know was that the senior would turn out to be Rose Mallinger, my neighbor. A good woman who was part of the fabric of my childhood, my neighborhood of once upon a time. Part of what made Squirrel Hill so Jewish, made me so Jewish and want to come live in Israel.
We can only imagine how difficult it would be for a woman of 97 to get around, let alone go to shul. Yet Rose Mallinger used whatever strength was left in her elderly bones to go and spend time with her Creator in the Beit Knesset every single week. And when the murderer saw her sitting there with her daughter Andrea beside her, he knew he was seeing Jewish continuity, something he could not abide.
I always knew that the people of Squirrel Hill were special. But the way Rose Mallinger was stolen from us, a 97-year-old woman who took pains to pray in the synagogue on Shabbat, alongside her family, proves that she, at least, was extraordinary. A soul now purified by fire.
Just as Rose Mallinger pulled herself up at 97 to go to shul, “rose” to the challenges of being elderly with all its aches and pains, so I pray that we as a people, will follow her example and remember to rise up to challenges, both big and small. Rose Mallinger rose to the ultimate challenge, because of the smaller challenges she embraced all her life, the everyday challenges of living life as a Jew, even at the age of 97.
May her memory be a blessing for all Klal Yisrael.
Women took my hands as I left the podium, thanking me as I made my way to my seat. After the event, a woman came up to me with tears in her eyes, thanking me for my words, then she blurted out, “I’m not even from Pittsburgh. I’m from Oregon!”
“We are all one people,” I said. I held out my arms and we hugged each other tight, rocking there for a minute.
I am somewhere in this sea of Pittsburghers. Pittsburgh Vigil in Israel, Pardes, Yerushalayim (credit Esther (Bobbi) Wasserman Gordon)
I’d been gone from Pittsburgh a long time. I only knew a handful of the people in the room. But there was an immediate connection with the others. A lot of the women asked for copies of my speech, so I pulled out some business cards so they could be in touch. Reuven told us to let him know if we want to add our email addresses to a Pittsburgh contact list to be in touch with the victims’ families and with each other. I opted in and have enjoyed the items shared so far very much.
The evening was, in fact, cathartic. It made me feel better being with other Pittsburghers and having a way to talk about how we felt in the wake of the tragedy. It was ours and yet not ours, so far away.
But then, I always tell people: you can take the girl out of Pittsburgh, but you can’t take Pittsburgh out of the girl.
Painting by Rose Lauer
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