In 1983, my father moved to Pittsburgh from his hometown in Syria, and he began working in a salon in Squirrel Hill. Squirrel Hill is Pittsburgh’s Jewish enclave, and he quickly accumulated a predominantly Jewish clientele — he cut and styled the hair of men and women of all ages, including children. He became involved in the local community, growing familiar with Jewish holidays and rituals; people often invited him to weddings and bar mitzvahs. Soon enough, after being encouraged by his customers to open a shop of his own in Squirrel Hill, he did.
For almost three decades, his shop has served the surrounding Jewish community, and he’s become a locally known figure, seeing the children he met as a new American grow into adults, and invite him and my mother to their weddings, often held at a nearby synagogue. He would learn what “Upsherin” is — a hair-cutting ceremony held when a Jewish boy turns three — and would often be the person chosen to cut the hair. He would learn where the best kosher restaurants were in the area and would often bring home kosher food that his customers had brought him as gifts.
Squirrel Hill is the most charitable, loving pocket of a city that is always trying to be large enough to fit all of those who want to call it home. It’s small and cozy enough to preserve the legacy of Mister Rogers’s neighborhood — its residents are emphatically dedicated to creating a welcoming space for newcomers settling in Pittsburgh. Many homes even display signs that read No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor — in Spanish, English, and Arabic. During Christmastime, my family could always expect holiday cards from my father’s customers who, though they didn’t celebrate the holiday themselves, wanted to extend warm wishes to those who did.
The Tree of Life Synagogue, located less than a mile from my father’s shop, represented this devotion to others. A few weeks ago, they hosted an event by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which has helped refugees of all faiths from around the world to reunite with their families or rebuild their lives in the States.
This weekend, some of the mercy and grace that made Squirrel Hill a comfortable home for my father and thousands of people of all races, faiths, and ages was robbed.
I called my father on Sunday morning when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette released a list of names of the victims in the tragedy, slowly reading through them to him, reciting the name, then the age, and then the hometown. As I went down the list, I had to repeat many of them because he recognized them and, in shock and grief, confirmed that he knew them. Many of the victims were close friends who had introduced him to the city where started his family. He recalled that many of the victims frequently asked him how they could help his siblings and their children who were in Syria during the war. He put names to the faces of the people he told me had congratulated me on my acceptance to college or who had wished me a happy birthday.
In his 30 years as an American, he had come to know many of his friends in Squirrel Hill better than he knew much of his own family, because they had welcomed him into their city as if he were their family.
The Tree of Life shooting, like all terrible crimes, was sinister because it reminds us of the presence of unconscionable evil in our fallen world that often lingers inconspicuously among us; when it strikes, it can eclipse the tenderness and compassion of those lives lost. After seeing images of the two-hour wait to donate blood to the injured in Pittsburgh, and the turnout of locals attending the vigil, and the thousands of dollars that Muslim Americans raised for the victims and their families, I’m reminded that this is Pittsburgh we’re talking about. Hatred can’t shake a city made of steel.
I learned that in the Jewish faith, there isn’t an afterlife that we know about, as there is in Christianity — my first instinct as a Catholic is to honor those who have passed by praying for the repose of their souls. To honor those who passed in this senseless act, many of whom led lives serving others, I was told to do the same, to serve the vulnerable and needy much as they had done — with the same empathy and overriding sense of justice of those lost, as a continuation of the lives that were taken from us so violently.