Harry Houdini, the Jewish escape artist who thwarted every attempt to cage him, died not long after being punched in the gut by a college student. Houdini’s abdominal muscles were legendary, but the student didn’t give him enough time to tense them before delivering a blow that ruptured his appendix.
Something like this happened to me on Saturday morning.
I grew up in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill — in fact, directly across the street and catty corner to the Tree of Life synagogue. Squirrel Hill is one of America’s leafiest and loveliest Jewish communities. Synagogues and Jewish shops abound in the hilly little Eden. Heavenly corned-beef sandwiches are easy pickings where orthodox, conservative, reformed, and unaffiliated Jews live harmoniously with their non-Jewish neighbors. The Jewish Community Center is a beehive of multi-faith activity.
People are nice to each other in Squirrel Hill. For crying out loud, it was literally Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. We had a mass murder in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
Until today, it seemed inconceivable to me that any American could, at this point, be shocked by a mass murder, even one in their backyard. Those expressing such shock have struck me as willfully self-delusional. Jewish Americans, in particular, are taught pretty much from day one that the veneer of “civilization” is perilously thin and that “It” could happen again. Here. In our lifetimes. And so we must be ever vigilant and wary — perpetually tensed.
I was weaned on such worries. And despite how paranoid they seemed on the corner of Shady and Wilkins, I thought I had internalized them.
But I wasn’t ready for the blow.
I wasn’t ready to hear the words ‘Squirrel Hill’ uttered by the president of the United States or the prime minister of Israel. I wasn’t prepared to see a law enforcement officer armed to the teeth standing in front of the house where I grew up memorizing Steelers’ Super Bowl stats. Or to see a childhood friend interviewed on the news. I was not prepared to wonder how close a connection I would have when the names of the dead were finally released.
Now I know what far too many Americans know — not that it can happen anywhere, but the visceral truth that it happened in a place I consider home. This isn’t knowledge. It’s a wound.
You don’t want to hear me rant and rave about what I think must change to make this the last mass shooting in America. So instead, I’ll tell you something else about Harry Houdini: He managed many of his impossible escapes by hiding keys in the back of his throat.
Our key is in our throats as well: our words.
Words matter. Words matter. Words. Matter.
We live in a cesspool of hateful words, and we are drowning in it. Yet we act surprised when hate rears up in our communities.
Mr. Rogers, whose son attended my elementary school, always counseled us to look for the helpers in times of crisis. I took his advice Saturday and was brought to tears by the bravery of Pittsburgh’s first responders. And I swelled with pride when several local rabbis declined a news anchor’s invitation to offer thoughts and prayers. Instead, they explained that, for Jews, prayer is primarily a personal affair, and that Judaism is first and foremost a religion of action.
Unless we see courageous action, the Squirrel Hill massacre will be just another on the list, albeit one with an asterisk for me. You probably have your own.
We’re a ruptured and bleeding nation in a cage of our own making. I only wish I had the magic key to unlock our hardening hearts.
Won’t you be my neighbor?
David Michael Slater is the author of more than 20 books. His work for children includes the picture books “Cheese Louise!”, “The Boy & the Book” and “Hanukkah Harvie vs. Santa Claus”; the early chapter-book series “Mysterious Monsters”; and the teen series “Forbidden Books.” Slater’s work for adults includes the comic-drama “Fun & Games.” Slater teaches in Reno, Nevada, where he lives with his wife and son. You can learn more about Slater and his work at http://www.davidmichaelslater.com.
David Michael Slater grew up in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, directly across from the Tree of Life synagogue. In this column for The Associated Press, he writes about his community and processing the tragedy.