In February 2019, members of New Light Congregation at the Tree of Life synagogue traveled to Charleston, S.C., to pray with members of Emanuel AME Church, where nine Black worshippers were shot to death by a young white supremacist in 2015.
It was a little more than three months after a gunman walked into Tree of Life in Squirrel Hill and killed 11 people from the three congregations that worshipped there.
There were hugs, tears and comfort. Among those who made the trip was writer Beth Kissileff, who accompanied her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light Congregation.
The experience inspired Kissileff to embark on a writing project with Eric Lidji. The result is a series of essays compiled in “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy,” newly published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Lidji is director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center. His work includes preserving documentation of the Oct. 27, 2018, attack at Tree of Life.
Kissileff and Lidji will read excerpts from the book in an event at 7 p.m. Tuesday, being streamed online by the City of Asylum, the nonprofit that houses exiled writers and promotes cross-cultural exchange. Kissileff and Lidji contributed essays to the book, but will not be reading their own work.
“We came up with the idea of finding the best writers in town that seemed to have some connection to the attack,” said Lidji. “Sometimes it was directly. They were people who, through their professional work, were involved in some of the recovery efforts and the healing work. Sometimes it was people who seemed to have an indirect relationship, people who had been through traumatic events themselves and could speak about it in various ways.”
The writers were given little guidance other than a word limit. Over 20 essays were collected.
“It was remarkable,” Lidji said. “People were clearly ready to write about this. The variety of things we received and the diversity of viewpoints and perspectives have come together to tell a whole story about what it’s like to be a community that is at the center of an event like this and try to make some sense of it.”
City of Asylum Director of Programs Abby Lembersky hailed the book for presenting “writers coming together through trauma and hardship to speak out against the forces of violence and forces that would divide us. … This book is by Pittsburghers, for Pittsburghers and how we can come together to heal, and so it feels important to create this evening for the reading.”
The book is organized into three parts. The first is “Here is Squirrel Hill,” essays about the community. “There are a lot of reporters in that section talking about what it’s like to cover something like this in the place where you live,” Lidji said. “There is also a fascinating piece by CMU professor Laurie Eisenberg, focusing on the memorial objects that people left outside of the synagogue.”
The second section is “Finding the Vessels.” The title comes from a sermon given by a rabbi the week after the shooting.
The third part, “You Will Get Through This,” is about people trying to find the fortitude to carry on with their lives in the wake of horrible tragedies.
“It’s a pretty raw book,” said Lidji. “The pain is still present and immediate in people’s lives.”
Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy is being streamed online for free. Go to cityofasylum.org to register.
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or email@example.com.
Local | Pittsburgh | Shadyside | Top Stories