An Unspoken Love Letter for Squirrel Hill
by Holly Minnich
I grew up in Squirrel Hill, I say, and you look down almost immediately. My mouth stays half-open, desperate to speak of how Saturday’s synagogue shooting felt and how it feels now. Pittsburgh is shaken up, I have decided to say next. I was there a couple hours after it happened, I will say. I was home for the weekend. Everything was too quiet. Squirrel Hill is usually full of life, but then it was so effing quiet. But you’ve broken the pause hurriedly to schedule next semester’s classes, so the words stay trapped within me.
Maybe I need to say something, I think, even as you move on so easily. I can’t even tell what your conversation holds now, since my ears and eyes have unfocused themselves. I want to tell you about home, about the corner of Forbes and Murray, about when the Squirrel Hill library put in armchairs and emerald windows that look out today onto the passing families below. I saw that corner emptied, a helicopter circling above, the streets tense and eerie. When my mom and I heard what was going on and drove into Squirrel Hill anyway, we felt an invisible fog drag against us, tugging us into silent shock. I want you to know how it felt to watch the rest play out on NBC from a nail salon while the women there told us how they heard sirens, so many sirens, and couldn’t go outside, and didn’t understand why for nearly an hour. How the confusion hasn’t faded ever since my mother and I saw live footage from a few blocks over, since an official came onscreen looking just as horrified as we all felt. We looked at each other with unease, feeling raw, vulnerable, because just then Trump appeared onscreen. He mentioned my home as if he knew it, how it was “just a shame,” how the synagogue should’ve done better. And even then I was beginning to understand how there is no understanding this and was beginning to sense the dread of watching a familiar, friendly community scrutinized for brutality, filtered through the news to be used throughout the nation in passing and vaguely sympathized with. I open my mouth to let all this escape and see discomfort in your expression for a fleeting second. Then you wave to a passing friend and make your escape, and you have added only indignation to this, now.
I would tell you how people hunched on the sidewalk muttered in muted phone conversation over and over again as they walked past the church and Uncle Sam’s steaks and Little’s shoes. How I began to wonder why my mother and I immediately drove out from the suburbs as it happened. How later I realize it is because we were shocked, confused, vulnerable either way, but at least at the corner of Forbes and Murray everyone would be stunned like us, and we would not be alone to wonder why and if we should feel this weight.
I watch your back as you walk away and fight the urge to shout at you. Can’t I explain how this is different because it is home, how my mother’s new apartment is a three-minute drive from the Tree of Life synagogue, how Pittsburghers know the big green library and have bought popcorn at Manor Theatre? We probably have passed those who are now dead a dozen times on the sidewalk without acknowledging them, and now we won’t, not ever. How Squirrel Hill has always been solid and beautiful, a haven to a Jewish community, and it should never have been as horribly dazed as it was on Saturday.
And more than anything I want to tell you how Pittsburgh isn’t yet broken, rallying even hours after we were sliced apart by hate. The silence down Forbes Street was broken in that same morning, when a young man with a beard and a guitar started singing. He played across from the library, announcing that “We Shall Overcome” to passerby otherwise captivated by silence. We stood next to him for a moment, my mother and I, and listened to his voice emerge shakily to echo into our air, and we listened. We leaned into the brick storefront, holding back tears, and then we left.
Later my mother passed the vigil on the drive back from her evening walk, and she glimpsed the umbrellas and black clothing unfurling across that same corner. Then she was past it in the next moment, and later she wished that she had parked to join Squirrel Hill. And I read about it in the paper, how a service was held in a church that was packed full of mourners of all faiths. How they sang songs and held candles long into the night.
And the next morning I was in an Edgewood coffee shop with the owner, a family friend. His cafe is usually pretty empty, but on Sunday it was teeming with newspapers and old men who talked for nearly two hours about what happened. An old man in a sweater vest started it, sitting down firmly on his stool to tell the room that he knew someone from high school who hadn’t made it. And my mom sat beside him and listened, and we all talked with subdued airs about us and wondered how the hate in the world has intruded so far into our lives. And nobody knew why, but we spoke anyway, the air raw with sorrow and confusion.
And later I pressed my fingers to the cold, smudged glass of a Greyhound bus as we slipped into the Squirrel Hill tunnel that day, as I caught a last glimpse of my troubled city on the way back to far-off Philadelphia. I imagine admitting to you that I wished I could stay, how there was so much that hadn’t yet been voiced, so many questions with no answers I wanted to ask anyway. I’ve always thought there was some way to life and death, but those people died just because some guy just felt like doing it. There was no reason for it, and they died because they prayed in their synagogue in a safe neighborhood and were killed doing it. Is this what life is? I want to ask. Bumping into things, until one of them hates and kills you, even though you don’t deserve it? And I know the answer to that is complicated, even unanswerable, but people in Pittsburgh are exhaustedly asking the same, and I wish I could take another bus back.
I have so many why’s now, but I have one for you that I might understand least. The people of Pittsburgh are confused, upset, and hurt. And they mourn, place flowers by Tree of Life, and will meet each other’s eyes to ask what happened? and listen. So why won’t you look up? You change the subject, you say nothing at all as I say with my eyes I would like to talk about it. I say I need to tell you that there are too many feelings to count, sometimes the same terrible ones twice over. You do not know the sidewalks of Squirrel Hill, but you know something terrible has happened for no reason. Please listen, I think, there is so much to say, about what Pittsburgh is and how it is shaken and how it still lives, if you will just listen.
About The Author: Holly Minnich is a freshman at Temple University who grew up in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. She was in Pittsburgh during the Tree of Life synagogue shooting on 10/27/18. Holly is deeply troubled by the shooting, but is heartened by the community's strength as her city mourns and recovers. An Unspoken Love Letter for Squirrel Hill is a reflection on her experience that Saturday.