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Episode 25: A Trip to Pittsburgh (Transcript)

Episode 25: A Visit to Pittsburgh

[Theme music]

Nahanni Rous: Hello, friends. Nahanni Rous here, host, and producer of Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. I’m here with a different kind of episode this time…. a personal reflection on the events of the last weekend.

[Theme music fades]

Nahanni: This week I took a charter bus from Washington D.C. with about 50 members of my synagogue. We were headed to Pittsburgh, to attend the funeral of Cecil and David Rosenthal, brothers who were murdered along with 9 other people during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life Synagogue. As he took lives, people heard the gunman shouting that he wanted to kill Jews. He shouted it again as he was arrested, and again at the hospital. Before his rampage, he posted on social media about the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. He blames Jews for bringing immigrants into our country.

[Violin music plays]

Nahanni: I didn’t know any of the victims, but I wanted to do something, and showing up seemed like the most meaningful thing I could do. Along the highway, the leaves were beginning to turn. We stepped off the bus in Pittsburgh into one of those glowing fall days. The Tree of Life is still a crime scene, so the funeral was at Rodef Shalom, a Cathedral-like synagogue on its own grassy block near the city center. We joined a stream of people walking solemnly toward the funeral. On every corner, there were uniformed police officers, sharing the grief of their city. Four police officers were wounded in the standoff with the gunman, two are still in critical condition.

[Violin music plays]

The main floor of the sanctuary is packed. I stand in the balcony, behind the last row of seats. Sunlight seeps through the multi-colored stained glass windows and warms my back. David and Cecil Rosenthal were 54 and 59. Their brother-in-law eulogizes them. Both men were developmentally disabled. David had a sense of style… he wore the same cologne and the same mirrored sunglasses every day. He loved to plan adventures, but was usually in bed by 8. Cecil was outgoing, and in everyone’s business. He was affectionately known as the town crier. The only word he could spell was his own name. They lived in a group home, but their true home was Tree of Life. David kept the prayer books lined up on their shelves, the talises neatly folded. Cecil was the first person to greet you as you walked in the door. People in the rows ahead of me nod. They must have known the brothers. The woman standing next to me had once been their teacher. The man next to her was a friend. People pass tissues. I’ve stepped into a giant family.

[Violin music plays]

Nahanni: A mile away in Squirrel Hill there’s a makeshift memorial on the sidewalk outside Tree of Life… flowers, 11 wooden Stars of David, messages chalked on the sidewalk. People say Squirrel Hill is an ideal neighborhood… racially and ethnically diverse, where even the different Jewish denominations coexist. A group of Jewish men daven near Tree of Life. A couple from India shake their heads. They’re here visiting their son who lives just down the street. A woman from the tiny Bruderhoff Christian sect holds my hand, looks me in the eye and says we all pray to the same God. Two women, a Presbyterian and a Catholic, stand arm in arm looking at the memorial. They tell me how on the day of the shooting, neighbors opened their doors to first responders, to shelter from the rain and use the bathroom... have a bite to eat. A woman in a hijab slows her car, rolls down the window, and says thank you to a black police officer who’s there standing guard. One woman who had been at the funeral tells me she was on her way to Tree of Life Saturday morning. It was 10 o’clock. A friend called her cell and told her to go home. She knew all of the people killed. I realize while talking to her, that she’s still in shock.

[Violin music plays]

Nahanni: Nobody knows exactly when the president will arrive. The mayor of Pittsburgh and 85-thousand Jews asked him not to come until he denounces white nationalism. He comes anyway. He does not denounce white nationalism. Instead, the spigot of his unfiltered hate has been spewing all week against immigrants, George Soros, trans people, the media… his political rivals. And consider this: the Turmp administration is cutting funding to combat far-right and white supremacist extremism. We are on a mountain of explosives, and Trump is lighting matches.

[Violin music plays]

Nahanni: My group is already on our way back to DC when Trump arrives. We miss the hundreds of protesters, and the signs that read “Words Matter.” On the bus ride home, there is so much to absorb… handicapped adults murdered for being Jews worshipping in their sanctuary… The 9 other men and women, elderly Jews who always showed up for services on time.

[Music plays]

Nahanni: Until this attack, and this visit to Pittsburgh, I had shrugged off worries about rising anti-Semitism in America. Don’t we have more serious problems: racism, sexism, homophobia, economic inequality? I thought we should be worrying about people who are really vulnerable… not some abstract fear grounded in our cultural memory. But now, I’m seeing it differently. Hate is all bad, but hatred of Jews plays a specific purpose in the twisted minds of white supremacists. Just like this killer, white supremacists use Jewish conspiracy theories to explain their own failure to dominate other races. It’s perverse thinking and it leads to lethal actions. Words matter.

[Etz Chaim Hi plays]

Nahanni: Now is a time to reach out, even as we turn inward and strengthen our own communities. As the American Jewish poet Emma Lazarus wrote more than 100 years ago, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” People in Pittsburgh seemed to know this instinctively when they held their interfaith vigil in response to the attack. On the ride home, our bus driver says it best. He’s Black, and not Jewish. Over the intercom he thanks us for the privilege of bringing us to the funeral. Although we meet under tragic circumstances, he says, it warms his heart to see people coming together.

[Etz Chaim Hi plays]

Nahanni: Thanks, everyone, for listening. Before I sign off, I want to recommend an article by Eric Ward. It’s called “Skin in the Game: How Anti-Semitism Animates White Nationalism.” He wrote it over a year ago, but it’s tragically prophetic and eye opening. A huge thanks to Ibby Caputo, who edits our scripts and to Ljova Zjurbin, for the beautiful music. Judith Rosenbaum is the Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, which produces Can We Talk?, and I’m your host Nahanni Rous. Pittsburgh, our hearts are will you.

[Etz Chaim Hi fades]


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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 25: A Trip to Pittsburgh (Transcript)." (Viewed on March 1, 2024) <http://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-25-a-visit-to-pittsburgh/transcript>.