The meaning of Squirrel Hill

As a progressive Jew in America, I often shunt aside my minority status. I have white skin. My last name, Phillips, doesn’t “seem Jewish.” It is far easier, and far safer, for me to walk in this world and access its privileges than people who are not white. 

But I am a minority. I grew up as one of three Jews in my high school class in Newtown, Connecticut. I started my radio career in a small city in Iowa with a synagogue that had only 15 families. When I started graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh in 1995, I chose to live in Squirrel Hill because it was a great neighborhood, with low rents, bookstores, two movie houses, a shoe store where the clerks still measured your feet even if you were a grownup, and a dive bar called the Squirrel Cage, where I drank Iron City beer with my classmates. I also wanted, for the first time in my life, to live in a place where I would not be a minority. Squirrel Hill is a Jewish neighborhood. Within walking distance of my apartment, I had my choice of at least a dozen synagogues, from ultra-Orthodox to Reform. There was a kosher grocery and a Judaica shop that ran a mail order business. Just call 1-800-JUDAISM. 

I wanted, in my Jewish neighborhood, to be more Jewish, even though I had always been skittish about organized religion. Raised in a spiritually unfulfilling Reform congregation, most synagogue pews made me feel trapped and anxious. I was hungry for something different. I found that in Dor Hadash, one of the congregations that now meets at the Tree of Life synagogue, where eleven Jews were murdered on Saturday. The name means “New Generation.” The congregation (which, I should note, met at a different local synagogue while I was a member) is Reconstructionist, a progressive movement that sees Judaism and Jewish ritual as evolving, reflective and egalitarian. The congregation was small and didn’t have a rabbi. Instead, we all took turns playing different roles in the services. Cheryl was the only professional clergy, a cantor whose modest, luminous soprano guided us through the Hebrew melodies of the prayers. I felt at home there. I had, for the first time, a Jewish social life, with Shabbat dinners and shared holidays. I was the most Jewish I’d ever been in America. Dor Hadash was the place where I learned to be Jewish as an adult, and on my own terms. 

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I moved away from Pittsburgh almost 20 years ago. This weekend, I found myself staring at a photograph of Murray and Forbes, the Squirrel Hill intersection where I used to catch the bus, filled with mourners. As a native of Newtown, I wondered if the entire geography of my past was going to be soaked in the blood of mass shootings. But I also was forced to confront the fact that in a world where a murderer can shout “All Jews must die” and end eleven Jewish lives, I  never would be able to set aside my minority status. And really I never could. During the Nazi occupation of my grandfather’s birthplace of Uzghorod, the name Phillips offered no protection to one of his brothers, a writer who was burned in the square for publishing an article against the Nazi occupation. Nor did the name prevent most of the rest of his family from being killed at Auschwitz. 

I may not have felt like a minority during the four years I lived in Squirrel Hill. But Squirrel Hill is still in America, in today’s America, when whatever feeling of “safe haven” a Jew — along with other endangered minorities at this terrible juncture in time — might have, can be shattered in an instant. When I think about the Tree of Life synagogue on a Saturday morning, Jews gathered together in close proximity, the idea of safety in numbers becomes a cruel joke. Instead, they were just an easy target. 

This reality, along with mourning for a community that gave me so much 20 years ago, has left me at this writing feeling hopelessness and despair and fear. With the he

The race is one of the most closely watched of the midterm contests — the outcome could determine which party controls the House of Representatives next year. 

lp of my family and friends, and the spiritual community I’m fortunate to have at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation a place that has a lot in common with Dor Hadash — I’ll get my courage back soon. I’ll try again to take the small steps I can to work for a less hateful world. Because there is no other choice.

Lisa Phillips, a journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz, is the author of Unrequited, out in paperback from HarperCollins.

There are 2 comments

  1. suzette green

    Thank you Lisa, for sharing your spirituality.
    Many people have different ways of connecting with their inner moral compass, the guidance of ancients, the connection with Mother Earth.
    But there is a dearth in this country of white men who murder without the benefit of a conscience.
    We need to continue sharing the love that binds all humanity as brothers.

  2. Eleana (Steinberg )Tee Cobb

    Dear Lisa
    I relate…. growing up in Greenwich Ct …girls school … one other Jewish girl in my class…our sisters as well… when my mother died… I was 20..(. my father died when I was 4.). I moved to Woodstock NY… many Jewish families ..
    Balance is good in life … I think
    exactly what you wrote… the same throughmy eyes… I’m in nyc … let me take you to brunch one of these days…All kind thoughts
    Eleana

    Eleana Tee Cobb
    rapsetee@aol.com
    212.281.2450

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