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Covering the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and its aftermath tested me as a Jewish journalist



PITTSBURGH (JTA) — I couldn’t walk easily, much less drive, but I knew I needed to be in Pittsburgh the moment I saw a CNN news alert that a shooting had taken place in a synagogue there.

It was Oct. 27, 2018, and I still wasn’t healed after breaking my ankle hiking that summer in Ein Gedi. An old friend was living with us, helping to care for me. Abe Opincar, a former journalist himself, understood what I needed: He agreed to drive me right then from suburban Washington to Pittsburgh.

By the time we got in the car, we understood that 11 people had been killed inside their synagogue. But we knew little more than that. I called Pittsburgh folks on the way, people I knew who had roots in the city, asking where to find sources, what I should know about Squirrel Hill and the Tree of Life synagogue, which was on its way to being known as the site of the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

We parked just off of Murray Avenue on Saturday night just as a havdalah vigil, pegged to the ceremony that ends Shabbat, was getting underway at the junction of Forbes and Murray avenues, catty corner from the JCC. I hobbled into the crowd, seeking out the Jewish teens who had organized the gathering and speaking to the people — Jews and non-Jews alike — who had been drawn to the event.

Attendees huddle at a vigil after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 27, 2018. (Ron Kampeas)

Abe seemed increasingly agitated, grimacing at me whenever we exchanged glances. When the crowd started singing hopeful songs — such as “How Good and Pleasant it is for a Tribe of Brothers to Live Together in Harmony,” a verse from Psalms that is a Christian hymn — he rolled his eyes.

When the vigil was done, we got seats at a local restaurant. As we bolted down plates of warmed-over meatloaf, I read aloud a couple of quotes from my notebook. Abe scoffed at the pledges of hope and renewal and strength. Communities just don’t recover from a shooting like this, he said.

I had my own doubts. But I also had a responsibility to tell the day’s story. You’re probably right, I told Abe, but I can only go on what the people I interview tell me. If they’re lying to themselves, so be it.

And then I filed and I waited for edits and it was done and we headed to the car and just as we got there I got a call. I didn’t say much out loud — it might have just been “Oh my,” or just “Oh,” and it might have been the way I said it, but Abe asked what I had learned. I hesitated and he said, as I twisted into the passenger seat, pulling in my cursed ankle, “You have to tell me.”

That was a source, I said. The shomrim, the men and women who keep company with Jewish dead until they are buried, are waiting outside the synagogue. The feds won’t let them remove the bodies for care until they finish combing the crime scene.

Abe started wailing. He was banging his palm on top of the rental car, letting out the despair that I, too, felt, knowing that the Pittsburgh Jewish dead were alone and uncared for, in contravention of the deepest and oldest rituals of our shattered people.

I did not need his tsunami of grief. I just needed him to drive to our dump of a motel on Pittsburgh’s outskirts, the only thing available because there was a big football game in a football crazy town the next day, the day after a gunman killed 11 Jewish worshippers. I looked around at the turn-of-the-last century houses behind the trees and prayed that a window would not light up.

I had to think. Should I try to publish a story from my car about what I had just learned? Was my source solid enough, or did I need to confirm it? I did not need grief clouding the logistics that bring stories to readers.

In the end, I confirmed the news and included the interview in the next day’s story. But in that moment, I was furious with Abe and furious with myself, at whatever there was in my expression that, even through the dark of night across the distance of a car, made Abe able to tell that the call had delivered a punch to my gut.

Dor Hadash congregants meet at East Liberty Presbyterian Church the day after a gunman massacred 11 worshipers at the synagogue where they usually congregated, in Pittsburgh, Oct. 28, 2018. (Ron Kampeas)

The next day, Abe’s anxious, skeptical outlook was vindicated, to an extent. The victims, the residents of Pittsburgh, seemed less sure of the strength they had projected the evening before. The folks peddling bromides about standing together, including Israel’s Diaspora minister, Naftali Bennett, came across as clumsy. There was less certainty that Pittsburgh would ever overcome the massacre of innocents at prayer.

“What do you do to make sure that fear doesn’t prevail?” the city’s Chabad rabbi, Yisroel Rosenfeld, asked me.

“I couldn’t see the city anymore,” said Wasiullah Mohamed, the executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, which had allied with the city’s Jewish community on multiple occasions. “I could just see its dark corners.”

I tried to talk to congregants of the three congregations housed in Tree of Life, Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha, New Light and Dor Hadash — but they had undergone the transformation I have seen at other scenes of horror, from verbose within hours of the attack to unwilling to engage within a day or so.

Leaving Pittsburgh, Oct. 29, 2018. (Ron Kampeas)

Two years later, covering the 2020 election in Pittsburgh, I found a community as cloistered as it had been when I left after the massacre, an insularity codified in a new counseling service called the 10.27 Healing Partnership. I got fantastic insights from Maggie Feinstein, the service’s founder, but it was clear I was not going to speak to the traumatized folks she was counseling. They were off-limits.

Voters line up outside a voting place in a synagogue Shaare Torah, on Election Day in Pittsburgh, Nov. 3, 2020. (Ron Kampeas)

In April, when the trial was ready to go ahead after four and a half years of waiting, it was even more formalized. The 10.27 Healing Partnership had hired a PR agency to clear all interviews, and even those who did speak, mostly lay leaders of the congregations, seemed to be working from a script, with bromides about doubling down on commitment to Jewish values.

I returned to Pittsburgh for the first day of the trial on my own — with my ankle long healed, I didn’t need Abe or anyone else to accompany me. Pittsburgh’s charms made it easy: The rich Italian-influenced cuisine, the parks, the cityscape set against three rivers and a mountain range. But the coverage was trying. I got a hotel room just a seven-minute walk from the austere mid-20th century federal courthouse, and I was walking distance from Market Square, which was buzzing throughout the summer with buskers and diners and drinkers, but I preferred the sterile comforts of my room, falling asleep to comfort TV, sitcoms and ancient movies.

A portrait of the writer by sketch artist Emily Goff. (©Emily N Goff, 2023, all rights reserved.)

I did most of my reporting from a media overflow room: There were only 10 slots in the courtroom for media, and the reporters agreed at the outset that seven should go to local media — one to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle — and three to national media. We watched large flat-screen TVs streaming in the proceedings from the courtroom four floors above us. We were not allowed to take pictures or use recording devices, not our phones, not our laptops, even in the overflow room. We could only type into our laptops, and if we were in court, write onto notepads.

The skills I acquired decades ago as an Associated Press reporter in Jerusalem, taking dictation from two or three sources (a radio, a TV, a spokesman on the phone) at once unrusted themselves after years of one-on-one interviews and more recently AI transcription. I typed as fast as I could.

Whatever pretense of competition the journalists thought they brought into the media room soon slipped away as we shared information with each other, both about details we missed in the trial itself and about what the reactions were in the courtroom. Did the defendant look at the witness? Which lawyer objected?

I relied on locals for Pittsburgh information and I became one of the designated Jews in the room, at one point explaining to a TV producer what a tallit was — the prayer shawl that Bernice Simon used to stanch her husband Sylvan’s wound, before the gunman shot her.

The radio guy who assiduously tracked down every scriptural reference looked up at me quizzically when Dan Leger, one of two shooting victims who survived, said, “There is no way to understand the tranquility of those who do wrong, and the suffering of those who do good.”

I explained Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, which functions as a go-to source for an apt Jewish quote.

That spirit of cooperation was exemplified by the alliance forged by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, and the striking journalists from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, who had launched an online alternative news source, the Pittsburgh Union Progress. They collaborated to share color, context and expertise not to just with each other but with the others covering the trial.

Comfort food consumed at the Union Grill in Pittsburgh, Oct. 28, 2018. (Ron Kampeas)

It was when the trial was fully underway that the local Jewish community’s filters were removed. On the witness stand, the survivors, the families of the dead, unleashed their accumulated grief and described in vivid detail the horrors they encountered, under the gentle solication of the prosecutors.

The second day of the trial, I listened, rapt, to the testimony of Carol Black, who survived by hiding during the shooting and whose brother, Richard Gottfried, was one of the fatalities. More than her recounting of the grim details of the day, how she came to be in the New Light sanctuary riveted me.

I had that epiphany every reporter longs for, of a story bigger than the sum of its already major elements. Black’s testimony and the testimony of others told the story not just of a single horrific day, but of American Jews, and how they worship and gather and stay together.

She and her brother were leaders at the New Light congregation, and she loved calling congregants up to read the Torah. Richard became more religious after their father died 30 years ago; Carol joined him in the middle of the last decade after a hip injury cut short her favored Saturday morning activity, running. She became bat mitzvah as an adult because the family’s congregation when she was growing up in nearby Uniontown did not mark the coming of age of girls. When she heard the gunfire, she was unzipping her tallit bag.

Leger explained the origins of Reconstructionism, perhaps the most American of Jewish denominations founded in the last century by Mordecai Kaplan, who sought to reconcile the American ethos of personal freedom with Jewish worship. Witness after witness, especially those from Leger’s Dor Hadash congregation, explained the Jewish imperative of welcoming the stranger.

When the gunman blew out the glass doors of the synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018, two American Jewish stories collided: One of open, proud practice and one of terror of what lurks among one’s neighbors.

The gunman’s trajectory was also an American Jewish story, and the malign role Jews have played in this country’s white supremacist imagination, from Henry Ford through David Duke through Charlottesville. He read about Dor Hadash’s partnership with HIAS, the Jewish immigration advocacy group, and he embraced the antisemitic trope that Jews were funding an influx of people of color to kill and replace whites.

He found the antisemitic “great replacement theory” online drawing from sources that placed it in the context of the American immigration debate, peddled by, among other, the president at the time, Donald Trump. He found succor on the Gab social media site, founded in Pennsylvania to counter the censorship the far right was running up against on normative social media sites after Trump’s election. On Gab, he engaged 400 times with posts featuring the word “kike,” considered by some historians to be a uniquely American slur.

The defense’s argument, that the gunman’s very antisemitism proved that he was delusional, was itself delusional, in a very American sense: How could the land of the free, of opportunity, accommodate a narrative about Jews as spawn of Satan?

The jury rejected the argument in the face of abundant evidence that antisemitism is embedded in the American reality.

The story was getting under my skin, under the skin of other reporters in the room. During a break, I flew to Wisconsin for parents day at my son’s Jewish summer camp. My wife and I drove down long roads skirting 18 wheelers like the one the gunman drove, past small family bakeries like the one where he lived and worked for 14 years, and I wondered about his American story, and how welcome I would be in the homes and businesses around me.

I caught myself: How unprofessional. You’re a journalist, professionally bound to maintain distance. Not everything is personal.

And yet when Andrea Wedner, who was shot and who saw her mother, Rose Mallinger, 97, die, described how she left as a first responder led her away — “I kissed my fingers and I touched my fingers to her skin. “I cried out, ‘Mommy’” — I looked away to control myself. I saw another reporter across from me, weeping.

Years ago, in far-flung bars and cafes, after days spent covering revolution, wars and riots, I’d heard foreign correspondents claim to have mastered the art of not getting caught up in the emotions that swirled around a conflict. I understood the value of keeping oneself apart from one’s subjects. A good reporter does not cut off his emotions, but he does not indulge them either. He keeps them at a reserve like oils on a palette, to be applied judiciously.

Pittsburgh Jewish Federation CEO Jeff Finkelstein speaks to the press after a jury find the gunman who shot 11 Jewish worshipers guilty of federal crimes. The writer kneels at lower left=, in Pittsburgh, June 16, 2023. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress via Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle)

There were three verdicts delivered during the trial: one determining the gunman’s guilt, one determining whether the crimes were eligible for the death penalty and one determining whether the gunman deserved the death penalty.

The sides delivered closing arguments two weeks ago. The lead prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan, finished his presentation with a slide show of the corpses of the 11 in place at the synagogue.

“Joyce Fienberg, her loss alone is sufficient to justify a sentence of death,” Olshan said, and he proceeded, attaching the same assessment to the other 10 names: Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger.

With each name, a slide appeared: a ruined body cradled by the cold white light generated by a flash. Outside, I thought, the shomrim waited for hours outside in the October chill, until the FBI told them to go home, that they would call when it was time.

“He turned an ordinary Jewish Sabbath into the worst antisemitic mass shooting in U.S. history and he is proud of it,” Olshan said.

The jury asked a couple of questions, and the next day, after seven hours of deliberation, they delivered their verdict: Death.

The victims and their families were ready to talk. They gathered for the media at the Jewish community center. Their message echoed that of the vigil on the evening of Oct. 27, 2018: Resilience. Hope. An American Jewish story.

“This fair judicial process is a reminder that we belong here,” said Howard Fienberg, whose brother Anthony dedicated a Torah in their mother’s memory just three days earlier. “This is where we are. This is where we’ve been. And this country is where we belong. And we remain a part of it. We always will.”

The JCC shut down at 7 p.m. Outside, on Forbes street, a single TV reporter caught the last light of day for one more standup.

An hour or so later, I was at the Murray Avenue Grill, just a block away from where I’d dined with Abe. It was packed. No one was talking about the trial, not even the local city council member I’d interviewed earlier in the day. A couple of tables were bursting with pink and with giddy anticipation of “Barbie,” playing across the street.

The next day, Judge Robert Colville convened the court one last time to formally deliver the death sentence, first asking the families to deliver impact statements. Twenty-three people spoke, raining fury down on the gunman, often expressed as a determination to outlive him, for generations.

Michele Rosenthal, whose brothers, Cecil and David, were among the fatalities, said her family had never thought much about immigration. The gunman changed that.

“We are resolved from here, on every Oct. 27, our family will make a donation to an immigrant organization such as HIAS,” she said. “We will mail the receipt to [the gunman’s] new home wherever that may be.”

Dan Leger who was shot in the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, gives a victim impact statement in the Joseph Weis bFederal Courthouse in Pittsburgh, Aug. 3, 2023. (©Emily N Goff, 2023, all rights reserved.)

Survivors described a grief that was at once wild with motion and immutable. “The past four and a half years have disrupted relationships, wasted millions of dollars and left empty places in our hearts and homes,” said Dan Leger. “It has moved some to become vengeful and experience hate themselves. It has moved people to form friendships …. To appreciate the fragility and beauty of life on earth.”

Colville thanked the witnesses, the defense and prosecution and the jurors. When it came to the victims, he borrowed a Jewish expression..

“May their memory be a blessing,” he said before finalizing the death sentence.

I said goodbye to the reporters, to the courthouse staff, to Emily Goff, the courtroom artist who filled her breaks by sketching us in the media room. By 2 p.m., the courthouse was empty. I had a room for a night in Pittsburgh, but I couldn’t take another hour, much as I had come to love the city and its bridges and its clusters of homes and buildings set against the Allegheny Mountains.

I wanted to see Baldwin, where the gunman grew up, the setting for the Christmastime photos the defense threw up on screens to humanize him. I had driven close by every time I’d come and gone to Pittsburgh but had never made the detour.

On the way, I drove through Whitehall, a suburb where utility poles are festooned with flags saluting the town’s veterans, many of them young men who had set out after 1941 to defend the world from fascism.

There was nothing in Baldwin’s duplexes and flat brown apartment buildings, its Italian eateries, its strip malls that explained anything.

Waze took me onto Route 40, which was as empty as the starless sky. I stopped to buy almond bark for my wife from Gene and Boots, a candy store that stood alone on the highway and that sells a milk chocolate pistol with two chocolate bullets. I gassed up at a sporting goods store.

I pulled up to my house close to midnight Thursday. I looked at my phone. No alerts, no Slacks from editors. There was a single text message from my son’s counselor at his camp, deep inside Wisconsin’s north country. My son had won the camp’s Derech Eretz award because he was “compassionate and kind.”

I had no idea the camp had a Derech Eretz award. So I wept, finally.

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25 years after opening, Yiddish Book Center overhauls its core exhibit for a wider audience




AMHERST, Massachusetts (JTA) — Since its opening in 1997, the Yiddish Book Center has wowed visitors with its architecture. A Jewish village resurrected on a college campus in sylvan Amherst, Massachusetts, the building conveys the Center’s mission: to rescue and revive a language spoken for over 1,000 years by Ashkenazi Jews in German-speaking lands, Eastern Europe and wherever they migrated. 

On Oct. 15, the Center is unveiling a new core exhibit, meant to flesh out and deepen the story told by its building and the treasures stored inside. Arriving at a moment when Yiddish is experiencing one of its periodic revivals, “Yiddish: A Global Culture” is a major Yiddish institution’s answer to a question without easy answers: How do you tell the story of a language without a country, and of a culture that lost a majority of its purveyors in a little over a decade of madness?

In response, the new exhibit depicts the “secular” Yiddish culture that arose in the mid-19th century as a distinctly transglobal, modern movement that includes theater, the press, mass market publishing and intellectual ferment in big cities from Warsaw to New York to Shanghai.

The exhibit is “foregrounding a story of creativity, tremendous accomplishment and tremendous diversity of a culture that has migration built into its DNA,” David Mazower, the Center’s research bibliographer and the exhibition’s chief curator, told me when I visited Amherst last month.

The displays in the exhibit will surround and weave in and out of the Center’s book stacks, another striking architectural feature of the building. The stacks offer duplicates of the Center’s collection of 1.5 million Yiddish books and periodicals, for sale and browsing. I couldn’t be the first visitor to be reminded of the closing scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which reveals a colossal government warehouse filled with, in the words of the screenplay, “crates and crates. All looking alike. All gathering dust.” 

What a casual visitor might not see is all that is happening at the Center to blow the dust off those books, including translator workshops, summer fellowships, conferences, an oral history project, a busy publishing program and a riotous summer music festival.

Interest in all of those activities has been helped along by young Jews interested in the language and culture and a pandemic that created a demand for online Yiddish classes. The Yiddish Book Center has been drawing 10,000 visitors a year since its pandemic shutdown. The New York Times made the latest revival official (to non-readers of the Jewish media, anyway) in an essay last month by the Jewish polymath Ilan Stavans, declaring that “Yiddish Is Having a Moment.” Stavans notes a flurry of new translations of obscure and classic Yiddish writers, the all-Yiddish staging of “Fiddler on the Roof” and the Yiddish dialogue in three recent Netflix series: “Shtisel,” “Unorthodox” and “Rough Diamonds.”

A mural featuring key moments in the global history of Yiddish is a central feature of a new core exhibit at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. (JTA photo)

(More controversially, Stavans also reports that Yiddish is appealing to those — presumably young anti-Zionist Jews — for whom Hebrew “symbolizes far-right Israeli militarism.”)

Such a revival also challenges keepers of the flame — not just the Yiddish Book Center, but the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, The Workers Circle, publications like In geveb and the Yiddish Forward, academic departments plus a host of regional Yiddish organizations — to define a language and culture that means many different things to many different people.

Is it a language of a decimated past? A progenitor of the Jewish left? A tongue, still spoken daily by haredi Orthodox Jews, that continues to grow and evolve? Is it an attitude — a Jewish way of being and thinking — that survives in humor and cooking and music even if those who appreciate it can’t speak the language? For European Jews of the Enlightenment, the Yiddish scholar Jeffrey Shandler reminded me a few years ago, “Yiddish represented the resistance and inability of Jews to enter the cultural mainstream. It represented something atavistic, a way of holding Jews back.” For Zionists, meanwhile, it represented a weak Diaspora and everything associated with it (a clash explored in a current YIVO exhibit, “Palestinian Yiddish:  A Look at Yiddish in the Land of Israel Before 1948”).

Goldie Morgenthaler, herself the daughter of the Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb, has written that she teaches Yiddish literature to mostly non-Jewish university students in Alberta, Canada because “studying what is specific to one culture is often the first step to understanding many cultures.”

At YIVO, an institution founded by scholars in Vilna in 1925 and transplanted to New York in 1940, Yiddish is regarded as an expression of and vehicle for “Jewish pride,” according to its executive director and CEO, Jonathan Brent.

“For Jewish people in the Diaspora to understand that they have in fact a future as Jews,” he said last week, “they have to take pride in their heritage. For all kinds of historical reasons, many Jews felt that [Yiddish] was somehow a shameful or devalued heritage. It was ‘zhargon’ [jargon], and it had been basically eliminated from public discourse in the land of Israel. YIVO from the very beginning wanted to study Yiddish as a language among languages, the same way you studied Russian or Spanish or French. It was a language with a history.

David Mazower, the Yiddish Book Center’s research bibliographer and the exhibition’s chief curator, shows off a samovar to be used in a recreation of the Warsaw literary salon of writer I.L. Peretz. (JTA photo)

“What Yiddish does,” he continued, “is help anchor us in the language in which our grandparents and great grandparents communicated their deepest thoughts and feelings. And that has real implications for the survival of the Jewish people.”

Aaron Lansky, the founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center, said the story he wants to tell goes back to his days as a graduate student in Yiddish at McGill University in the 1970s, when he first started saving the discarded books that would become the core of the Center’s collection.

“People think of [Yiddish] as this nostalgic creation,” he said. “But the truth is, it was a profound, multifaceted and really global literature that emerged in the late 19th century, and then just took off throughout the 20th century…. It wasn’t long before writers were using every form of literary expression — expressionism, impressionism, surrealism, eroticism. It all found expression in this very short period of time, and even the Holocaust didn’t destroy it. “

Lansky admits his own vision is more literary than the core exhibit’s, and thanked Mazower for creating a broader view of Yiddish as a global culture.

That view is represented in a 60-foot mural that serves as an introduction to the exhibit. Cartoons by the German illustrator Martin Haake depict key historical vignettes in Yiddish history, from nearly every continent. Glikl of Hameln, a German-Jewish businesswoman, writes her diaries at the turn of the 18th century. Women call for a strike at “Yanovsky’s Cigarette Factory” in Bialystok, Poland, in 1901. A nursery scene honors the leading Yiddish activists who were born in Displaced Persons camps after World War II. And tubercular Yiddish writers are seen recovering at the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society in Denver, Colorado, which operated from 1904 to 1940. 

The mural lines the ramp that leads to the bookshelves, where displays (some of which Mazower calls “wedges”) use artifacts and wall-mounted photos to talk about the breadth of Yiddish culture. There’s a display about Yiddish celebrities, including writers, such as Sholom Aleichem and Chaim Zhitlowsky, who would draw tens of thousands of mourners to their funerals. Another display honors those who preserved and studied Yiddish culture, from YIVO (described here as “The Mothership”) to the monumental “Language and Cultural Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry” undertaken between 1959 and 1972 by the linguist Uriel Weinreich. A Yiddish linotype machine, rescued by Lansky, anchors an exhibit about the Jewish press.

Michal Michalesko (center) and chorus appear in a publicity photo from an unidentified production, ca. 1930. Michalesko (1884–1957) made his name in the 1910s as a star of the Warsaw Yiddish operetta stage. (Yiddish Book Center)

A centerpiece of the core exhibit is a recreation of the Warsaw literary salon of the writer and playwright I.L. Peretz, a leading figure of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. While few actual artifacts belonging to Peretz survive, the room will include contemporaneous objects and photographs to immerse visitors in the literary scene of the day. 

“You’ll step through his doorway the way that so many young writers did, clutching their first manuscripts to show them either in Hebrew or in Yiddish,” Mazower explained. “His name, his address was known throughout the Russian Empire at that time. People would come thousands of miles in some cases to Warsaw to try and get entry into this alchemy-like space where extraordinary things happen.”

One of those pilgrims was Mazower’s great-grandfather, the famed playwright Sholem Asch. When Asch showed Peretz a draft of his notorious play “God of Vengeance,” whose lesbian subplot would shock audiences and rile religious leaders, Peretz reportedly told him to burn it. 

“My hope is that through the exhibition as a whole you see Jewish history through a Yiddish lens and in a different way from the Holocaust-defined story that so many of us have been educated with and that popular culture feeds us,” said Mazower. 

A Yiddish book features a stamp for a bookseller in Cairo, demonstrating the global reach of the language. (JTA photo)

The exhibit treats the Holocaust as one part of the Yiddish story, not its culmination. The original Yiddish edition of Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” published as part of a memorial project in Argentina shortly after the war, rests in a wedge about individuals who rescued Yiddish culture under the Nazis. The same section features a tribute to Rokhl Brokhes, a writer murdered in the Minsk Ghetto in 1945. A still from a recent animated adaptation of one of her stories by Alona Bach, currently a PhD student at MIT focusing on the “intersections of electricity and Yiddish,” affirms one of the Center’s aims: to bring young Yiddishists into conversation with the past.

The story of Yiddish theater will wrap around the auditorium, starting with a large photo of the audience at the opening of the Grand Street Theatre in New York in 1905. A memorial section remembers the probably thousands of actors, playwrights and musicians who were killed in the Holocaust.

“Had Yiddish theater not suffered a rupture, which it did, it would have continued to evolve and borrow and expand,” said Lisa Newman, the Center’s director of publishing and public programs. “What’s so important about this exhibition is that it places Yiddish in this context of language no less than any other country’s, except it’s not a country.” 

I asked Mazower what kind of stories he did not want to tell about Yiddish culture.

“It’s not a story about Yiddish humor,” he said. “It’s not a story about the Holocaust. It’s not a story about the state of Israel. It’s not a lachrymose story about Jewish persecution through the ages.”

Other Yiddishists told me much the same thing (Brent said that the story of Yiddish “shouldn’t be told as a collection of jokes, or Yiddish curses, or as a cute language that connects you to Bubbe’s gefilte fish”). 

And yet, said Lansky, “We’re not feinschmeckers, we’re not elitist when it comes to Yiddish. Yiddish was a vernacular language, and I am happy to embrace that. I love the humor and social criticism that’s embedded in it. It’s the aggregate that’s so impressive. To see all of this literature and culture in a lively and accessible way can be quite transformative.”

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San Francisco Giants fire Jewish manager Gabe Kapler after disappointing season




(JTA) — The San Francisco Giants have fired Jewish manager Gabe Kapler after four seasons.

Kapler joined the Giants in November 2019 and led the Giants to a 295-248 record during the 2020-2023 seasons, highlighted by a 107-win 2021 campaign that earned Kapler the National League Manager of the Year award. The team rewarded Kapler with a two-year contract extension that was set to run through 2024.

The Giants were eliminated from postseason contention this week, missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

In addition to his 2021 accolade, Kapler’s tenure in San Francisco was punctuated by his unorthodox style both on and off the field. The 48-year-old Hollywood, California, native is a fitness geek with an active social media presence and his own blog. ESPN deemed him “the most interesting man in baseball” in May 2022. Kapler also has a Jewish tattoo on each leg: a Jewish star on his left leg and “Never Again” — a reference to the Holocaust — on his right leg.

On the field, Kapler in 2020 became the first MLB manager to kneel during the national anthem amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. In 2022, in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Kapler announced that he would begin skipping the pregame national anthem to protest the “state of this country.” He frequently used his platform in the sport to share his political beliefs.

Kapler played for six teams during his 12-year major league career, largely as a role player and backup outfielder. After retiring in 2010, Kapler played and coached for Team Israel in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. He previously managed the Philadelphia Phillies from 2018-2019 and worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

With Kapler’s firing, San Diego Padres manager Bob Melvin becomes the league’s lone Jewish skipper.

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Flash floods put a dangerous damper on the first night of Sukkot in NYC




(New York Jewish Week) — Mark Vogel, who lives in Riverdale and runs a website about Jewish and kosher travel, spoke for many of his neighbors when he posted a video on Instagram of his sukkah being pounded by rain, standing forlornly in the middle of his flooded backyard.

“I built a Sukkah,” he wrote in a caption. “I should have built an ark.”

Vogel, and many of the other millions of Jews in the tristate area, have been coping with the reality that Sukkot, the most outdoor holiday on the Jewish calendar, has coincided with heavy rains that have flooded highways, shut down subway lines and triggered a state of emergency in New York City. More than 8 inches of rain had fallen at John F. Kennedy airport by Friday afternoon, and more is expected into Saturday.

New Yorkers should expect heavy rain and flooding to continue throughout the night tonight,” Gov. Kathy Hochul posted on social media on Friday afternoon. “To our Jewish neighbors celebrating the beginning of Sukkot, please take steps to stay safe during this severe weather event.”

Sukkot begins Friday night, and on the weeklong holiday, Jews traditionally eat their meals and even sleep in the sukkah, an outdoor hut with a roof generally made from tree branches that recalls the Israelites’ biblical sojourn in the desert and emphasizes the need for divine protection.

But rain makes those observances close to impossible — leading most would-be sukkah-dwellers in New York to accept that they’ll be eating indoors on the holiday’s first night, and sparking a wide variety of theological and practical responses from rabbis and rank-and-file Jews alike. For others, it has complicated travel plans hours before the holiday’s start, backing up traffic and making the subway especially hard to navigate.

“I once heard that if it rains on [the] first night of sukkoth, it’s some sort of sign that God is displeased with us,” Linda Gisselle Roth, who splits her time between New York City and Connecticut, wrote on Facebook on Friday. “And it’s been raining for days. And I’ve never felt like this before.”

She added, “I want to spend [the] first night of sukkoth, in my sukkah. So for right now, I’m asking, please let the rain stop.”

While the rainy season in Israel traditionally begins right after Sukkot, rain is a common occurrence on the holiday in the United States and even inspired the title of a children’s book from the 1990s, “Why Does It Always Rain on Sukkot?”

Mark Vogel, a Riverdale resident, posted a picture of his sukkah in a flooded yard to Instagram on Friday. (Screenshot)

Observant Jews have varying customs when it comes to dealing with rain on the holiday. Many avoid their sukkah entirely, while others will quickly recite blessings over wine and challah in the sukkah and then eat the rest of the meal indoors. Adherents of Chabad, the Hasidic movement based in Crown Heights, try to eat in the sukkah under nearly all circumstances.

One resident of Teaneck, New Jersey, a heavily Jewish suburb, posted a single-spaced, two-page guide from his local rabbi on what to do if it rains on the holiday. (The rabbi, who is not named in the document, recommends saying blessings over wine and challah in the sukkah and then continuing the meal inside.)

Rabbis on social media, meanwhile, explored the theological dimensions of the weather. Some cited a passage from the Mishnah, the ancient code of rabbinic law, that compares rain on Sukkot, following the effort of building a sukkah, to a servant bringing his master a jug of wine, only for the master to throw water back in the servant’s face.

“Nasty weather on sukkot is a sign of God’s displeasure with us,” Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, who teaches at the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah seminary, wrote on Facebook. Then, referencing the recent High Holidays and addressing God, he wrote, “If all we did the last few weeks is not good enough for You, what’s left for us to say?! We did the best we can. If You want more, You will have to let us know what that more is.”

Rabbi Ethan Tucker, the president of the Hadar Institute, an egalitarian center of Jewish study based in Manhattan, also cited the passage and encouraged people to focus on the experience of the servant in the parable. He added that because the first day of the holiday falls on Shabbat, the other central commandment associated with Sukkot, praying with four species of plants, is also deferred a day. (Sunday is expected to be sunny.)

“What does it *feel like* when you have prepared for something and then you cannot execute it as planned?” he wrote on Facebook. “It feels like rejection, as in the parable. The weather may in fact just be the weather, but it doesn’t necessarily make the feeling of loss less palpable. Is there a way to make this Sukkah rainout an opportunity to sit with rejection? To empathize with other such experiences, even if they are not our own?”

Some New Yorkers tried to stay positive. “It might be flooding and we might consume a lot of rain water with our food lol but Sukkot Dinner under the Stars is still on even if we might end up eating indoors under a roof instead!” a Facebook user from Queens posted on Friday, advertising a meal that night.

Nina Jochnowitz, a State Senate candidate in New Jersey, cited the rabbinic idea that Sukkot is considered a time of joy, and referenced a Hasidic saying that “‘joy breaks all boundaries,’ transforming even the most negative occurrences into blessings!”

And others reached for seasonal parallels: “If only sukkot came with rain dates like baseball,” one person posted.

For Vogel, the travel writer and Riverdale resident, the rain was especially unfortunate, as he has built a smaller sukkah in recent years to limit capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the first year he had gone back to building a larger one.

“Well, I was looking forward to eating in a large sukkah this year with friends and family,” he told the New York Jewish Week. “But we can’t control the weather, so we will make the best of it.”

The post Flash floods put a dangerous damper on the first night of Sukkot in NYC appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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