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American Yahrzeit

What the Pittsburgh Jewish community and the Jewish tradition of mourning teach us about confronting antisemitism

Alana Newhouse
October 29, 2018

In the Jewish laws that apply to mourning the dead, there is a concept called aninut. It means intense grieving, and according to Halacha it lasts from the moment a mourner has learned of a death until the end of the burial. In that in-between time, he or she is exempt from all commandments that require action and attention, including praying or even reciting any blessings at all. Some rabbis will go further and in fact forbid any action that involves expressions of faith or fealty to God. We are not simply allowed to be angry in the immediate aftermath of loss; we are strongly discouraged from even trying to force ourselves out of that pain.

In The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, the late Rabbi Maurice Lamm explained the psychological roots of this idea: “The onen [mourner during aninut] is a person in deep distress, a person yanked out of normal life and abruptly catapulted into the midst of inexpressible grief. He is disoriented, his attitudes are disarrayed, his emotions [are] out of gear. The shock of death paralyzes his consciousness and blocks out all regular patterns of orderly thinking.”

The Jews of Pittsburgh—and, we would argue, many people around the world whose eyes and hearts are turned to them—are currently in aninut. Under normal circumstances, Jewish burials must happen within 24 hours of death. But the Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 people were murdered while praying this past Sabbath, remains a cordoned-off, and by all accounts spectacularly gruesome, crime scene. The first funerals will not be held until tomorrow, at the earliest.

If you, like many others, are trying to understand and clarify your own thoughts and feelings inside of a swirling and fevered maelstrom of reaction to the worst mass murder of Jews on American soil, repeat this to yourself: Many people are in shock, and regular patterns of orderly thinking have been disrupted.

But over the next few days, as funerals take place and shivas begin, it will once again be our responsibility to bring order back to our thinking—first, to accept clearly what just happened in Pittsburgh, and then to think and act bravely about our history, about our values, about how to live safe and good and meaningful lives. After spending aninut in Pittsburgh, where most of the Tablet staff has been this week, we believe the lesson here is clear: The Internet has given us the illusion of connection. Politics has given us the illusion of control. Only community gives us the reality of both.


Here is what happened this week: Eleven Jews were murdered in Pittsburgh by Robert Gregory Bowers. He explained his deed to the police officers who arrested him in language that couldn’t have been any clearer: “I just want to kill Jews.” He had reached the end point of a brain-eating disease called anti-Semitism, which posits a hidden conspiracy of Jews that is ceaselessly working to overturn all natural laws and settled social arrangements in furtherance of their own malignant ends. To believe this is to believe that all Jews—no matter who they vote for or who they’re married to or how many times and where they practice their faith if at all—are dangers to society, and therefore must be targeted for eradication.

Part of the insanity, and the power, of anti-Semitism is that everything that “the Jews” do, or a Jew does, provides further evidence of the reality and the malignity of the Jewish plot. We are archcapitalists and at the same time the primary carriers of the viruses of socialism and Bolshevism. We are physically weak, yet also hyperaggressive and violent. We are presented as right-wing, left-wing, sexual, asexual, straight, gay, light-skinned, dark-skinned, childless, over-breeders, publicly argumentative and nefariously invisible, creatures of the dark shadows.

Anti-Semitism is not the exclusive province of either Donald Trump’s supporters on the alt-right, or of his most fervent opponents on the left. It transcends partisan alignments. It appeals to defiant bigots and proud justice-seeking universalists alike.

Anti-Semitism, whether expressed as hatred of Jews because of their religion, or their politics, or the actions of their nation-state, provides its believers with a single, all-encompassing explanation of reality, which turns on the unique evil of the Jewish people, or the Jewish race, or the Jewish religion, or the Jewish nation-state. It is at once the black mass of reactionary thought, and the great perversion of all reactionaries, the primal howl of idiots in their basements and the most sophisticated frontier of right-thinking academics and the way the half-lettered of every ideological leaning impress their peers with the depth of their insight into the inner workings of large events: It. Was. The. Jews.

Many well-intentioned Americans, including many Jews, appear to have difficulty believing that anti-Semitism is unique and entirely unrelated to who Jews are or what they do. But it is. And to explain Bowers’ motives as anything other than the purest expression of the thought-virus he carried—as a political act, or an exercise in some other kind of applied reason—is to participate in the killer’s own sickness.

The widespread dismissal, on both the right and left, of the reality of anti-Semitism often shows a profound misunderstanding of what anti-Semitism is and how it operates. There are reasons for this misunderstanding, of course. There is the nature of anti-Semitism itself, which doesn’t fit easily into a contemporary conversation about prejudice rooted in American ideas about race, gender, and sexual orientation. There is political opportunism. There is fear. There is the widespread American ignorance of history, which comes from the belief that we, as Americans, exist outside of history, or are in the process of transcending history, in order to achieve a more perfect union with whatever form of the divine.

Among American Jews, there is also the fact that we are conditioned both by the American mythos and by our own history to think of anti-Semitism as something that happens there, rather than here. The countries where our people historically have suffered the worst from the disease of anti-Semitism are the countries from which our forebears very wisely emigrated. We think of Russia, where modern anti-Semitism was invented, or Poland, where it took its deadliest toll, or France, where the Dreyfus case split the nation in half for the better part of a century, or multiple other countries throughout Europe and the Middle East where Jews are being chased out, physically attacked and even murdered today by a new wave of anti-Semites, inspired by a toxic mixture of political Islam with 20th-century European fascism.

Besides, we think, people can’t possibly just hate us because we are Jewish—not here in America. It’s because of guns. Or our support for immigrants. It’s Israel’s fault. Or maybe the victims weren’t Jewish enough. Maybe their murder is the fault of other Jews, whose voting habits put us all at risk, and we can save ourselves by blaming Jews whose politics are different than ours and excluding them from our communities. Maybe, if we purify ourselves, the next shooter will attack someone else’s house of worship, and murder their grandparents—not ours. We should make stronger alliances with people who admire Louis Farrakhan. We should denounce Donald Trump more fervently, or thank him more publicly and profusely. Anything but admitting that anti-Semitism is real, and that anti-Semites want to kill us.

We have known for over a decade, since the FBI began collecting hate-crime statistics, that Jews are the most targeted victim group in America, despite being less than 2 percent of the American population. We have watched as our synagogues and day schools began installing ever-more elaborate security systems. We nodded as our children came home and told us about the drills that they did in school. We Jews overreact to things because of our history, we told ourselves. We should keep quiet, and not panic. After all, the last shooting only killed one person. The bomb threats were fake. It is more important to make allies than to name our enemies.

If you feel confused by these arguments, especially when they’re made by friends or family members or neighbors whose politics you otherwise share, you should know in this moment that the confusion is not yours alone. The arguments you are hearing don’t simply materialize out of the digital ether. They come from somewhere.

People who argue that powerful people who consort with anti-Semites don’t mean it, or can’t be held responsible for their actions or alliances, are not our friends—whether they claim to represent the right or the left. They are the friends of people who want to kill us. Those who argue—from the right or the left—that anti-Semitism should be tolerated as part of a larger struggle against some much bigger force of darkness, those people are arguing for the tolerance of anti-Semitism, against the interests of our community. They are encouraging anti-Semites, some of whom, like Robert Bowers, will inevitably kill us.

This week, part of your responsibility—to yourself, to other Jews, to Americans, to history—is to accept this.


Last night, there was a community-wide vigil held at Pittsburgh’s Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall. More than 2,000 people sat inside, 1,500 more stood in the rain as speakers piped out the ceremony. Most of them were Jews, of all denominations, but many, many others were not.

Early in the program, Naftali Bennett—the Israeli Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs—was invited to the stage to give a short speech. Even before the event, his coming presence was cause of some controversy online, with progressive voices arguing that it was inappropriate—or worse—for the representative of the government of Bibi Netanyahu, who has been ostentatiously supportive of Trump, to participate in a memorial to people they said were ultimately killed because of a dangerous atmosphere that the president had nurtured. Indeed, as Bennett approached the stage and began speaking, a few people could be seen shifting uncomfortably in their seats.

A similar tiny ripple of unease could be detected when—a few speeches later—a young imam ascended to the podium. But in both cases, the speeches ended in fervent, sustained, emotional applause. And the feeling in the room was obvious: These people came to that space for the purpose of being literally, not metaphorically, with this community at a time of great need. Their physical presence, the manifestation of something real—not a series of pixels hastily sent out across some ether, never to adhere to anything other than more pixels—actually did the work of making other humans feel comforted.

As the ceremony went on, it became clear that this pull for realness was not a request; it was a demand. Indeed, the first standing ovation was given to the mayor, Bill Peduto, who eschewed the sweet-talk and instead thunderously attacked the dystopian system that too many of us are choosing as our lifestyle: “We will drive anti-Semitism and the hate of any people back to their basements, to their computers, and away from the open discussions and dialogues around this city, around this state, and around this country.” Those are the choices now: You can be on your computer, or you can be in real dialogue—engaging with real people, creating real bonds, ensuring real safety, generating real joy, giving real solace.

As Jews, it is our responsibility to mourn with the families of the dead, which is why many of us at Tablet came to spend this week in Pittsburgh. We know it is a cliché to say that when you reach out to comfort someone in pain, it is often you who leaves the most changed. But for us, the people of Pittsburgh—both the various Jewish communities here, and the larger city of which they are very much a vital part—turned this abstraction into a revelation. Much has been written this week about the uniqueness of this place—the ways in which its size and history and geography have meant that people of differing faiths, races, politics, and socio-economic positions can’t cordon themselves off from one another. But that is wrong. It isn’t that they can’t. It’s that don’t want to. In fact, to do so would destroy the few real ways they’ve managed to preserve goodness in their lives—in ways many of us in America have not.

The laws of mourning are a powerful and comforting part of the Jewish faith because they impose a kind of psychologically attuned order on the experience of looking into the well of loss. But for those of us who are not the next of kin of the dead, and thus are not bound by those commandments, we are left simply with the abyss—a black hole of anger, fear, and loss.

It is understandable that many of us have reacted to that darkness by trying to shout into it. We have sat for hours on Twitter, liking and retweeting and refreshing so that we can yell at and about strangers; emailed articles that made us inexplicably angry or sad over news about people and places whose names meant nothing to us hours earlier; written posts so maudlin that a year from now, when Facebook shoves a reminder of it in our faces, we will cringe. If there is one thing we inadvertently learned from the people of Pittsburgh this week, it is how clearly our very online lives are killing us—if not instantly, as Robert Bowers did this week, then steadily. Think of it like food. Instead of one small serving of actual human connection, we are stuffing ourselves with saccharine tweets and articles and Instagram posts that are not only devoid of any nutritional value but will at some point—as we suspected all along—cause some form of cancer.

These are not evil impulses; they are the completely logical moves of people who feel helpless—who want to connect with those in pain, who want to understand a historical moment from the inside out, but who have been isolated from the means to do so.

But as long as we are lucky enough to live inside these bodies, the isolation is not complete. Instead, this week, get yourself a symbolic apple: If you can, get on a train or plane and come to Pittsburgh and go to a shiva call. Donate money to the families of the wounded police officers, to the synagogue that will need rebuilding, or to the community—which is collectively bearing the costs of funerals, physical injuries and lives that will now be changed in unimaginable and unpredictable ways. If none of those ideas are feasible for you, write out a feeling, any feeling, and express it in a card—not an e-card, a real card, made of paper—and mail it to a person or institution here. They will feel your humanity in it—and so will you.

Indeed, the laws of Jewish grieving are themselves a stark warning against isolation. Guests in a house of mourning are enjoined to bring food, and perform tasks that the mourner cannot perform for him or herself. The mourner’s job is to mourn, and to be seen mourning, inside their home, by the community. After seven days, the mourner arises and begins to resume, one by one, some aspects of normal life, according to a structure that lasts until the end of the year-long ritual of reciting the kaddish—a ritual that he or she cannot perform without a quorum of other people.

In this way, the onen returns to being just a Jew—which is all we ever wanted in America, or anywhere. But, as with everything else in life, we can’t do it alone.


To read more Tablet coverage of the Pittsburgh massacre, click here.

Alana Newhouse is the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.