I was born and raised in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, and my mom still lives there, in the house where I grew up. When I was young, except for occasional outings to the museum or for twice-yearly shopping trips, my three siblings and I defined our existence by the few surrounding blocks that could be navigated by foot or bicycle. Our school, Hillel Academy, was right around the corner, Schenley Park was just down the hill, our cousins lived downstairs and up the block, and the Bookmobile parked faithfully on Darlington Road every Thursday night. Every Shabbat morning–rain or shine–we walked to shul with our father. We had the Pirates and the Steelers, a movie theater, and a kosher bakery. Our little world.
Pittsburgh—which has repeatedly reinvented itself— had yet to become the modern, hip, exciting city that it is today, and its Jewish community was fairly small. In fact, in my adolescent imagination, it was a bit of a backwater, especially when compared to a sophisticated big city like New York. Somewhere at the back of my mind, I always knew I would be leaving Pittsburgh once it was time for college. Which I did, with relish and excitement. Like most adolescents, I don’t think I gave much thought at the time to how Squirrel Hill had held me so snugly and so well. It is only now–so many years later– that I can truly understand the nature of that warm embrace.
Today, shocked and shaken in New York by the tragedy in Pittsburgh, I find myself hungrily devouring the news shows, craving a glimpse of a familiar street corner, straining to identify a storefront. I realize I want to claim my place in this proud and warm community, to let them know that no matter how far away I may be, I’m one of them, as I always have and ever will be. I know them and I share their “out-of-town” identity, their humanitarian Jewish values, the midwestern solidarity they embody. I share their anguish, and I share their outrage.
In the wake of the massacre, I have received countless emails, texts, and phone calls from people who associate me and my family with Squirrel Hill. Their loving messages strongly affirm for me my primal connection to my hometown. For those who reach out to me, I am their association with Pittsburgh, and I am proud of that. I am so moved by their expressions of horror, sympathy, and commiseration. Their concern about my mom, family and me affirm and restore my faith in a world that has felt broken and lost. Their words matter, and their sincerity matters. Taking the time to do something—to string together words of concern—matters in a radical way. I thank them for reminding me in the midst of evil that there is such a thing as goodness, and for helping to sustain in me the hope that goodness will somehow carry the day.
Giti Bendheim is a psychologist who grew up in Pittsburgh.