Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy

    🕮    October 27, 2020 is the second anniversary of a horrific act of domestic terrorism, the antisemitic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. In memory of the lives lost on that day, I bring you a conversation with the editors of Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy. This book highlights the voices of those who were significantly affected by the deadliest antisemitic act on American soil. Although the gunman killed 11 innocent souls, injured 6, and created deep wounds within the community, he was unable to silence them or disconnect them from their ties to their faith. 
I got my Masters of Library Science at the University of Pittsburgh and worked for a few years at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville Branch in the 1990s. I love Pittsburgh, so I was especially eager to hear the local perspective from co-editors Beth Kissileff and Eric Lidji.

Beth and Eric, can you please each give us a little background about yourself? What do you do? What other books have you written? What's your relationship to Pittsburgh and to the events of October 27, 2018? 
BETH: I have lived here since 2010, but my husband grew up here and my mother in law is here, so I first visited in 1987 when I started dating my husband. My husband is the rabbi of New Light, one of the three congregations which used the Tree of Life building and was in the synagogue that day- he hid himself and others. 
Background on me – I am a PhD in comparative literature and have written a novel, Questioning Return, and edited an anthology where I ask academics to write about Genesis from the position of their field of expertise. I have a volume on Exodus coming out too. I am a full time freelance writer for a variety of publications. I’ve taught at universities in the past but since coming to Pittsburgh, with the exception of one semester teaching, I have mainly been focusing exclusively on writing though with the right opportunity, I’d be happy to return to the classroom. 
ERIC: I work at the Rauh Jewish Archives, preserving the historic records of the local Jewish community. I grew up in Squirrel Hill and spent most of my career in journalism before gradually moving over to this line of work. I mostly write about local Jewish history, including a biography of Rabbi Walter Jacob titled The Seventeenth Generation
Please give us a brief overview of Bound in the Bond of Life. What is it about and what is its scope? Who is its intended audience? 
ERIC: The book has 24 essays by local writers, offering their thoughts on the attack. The selections are diverse. They represent the broad spectrum of Jewish belief, as well as a few non-Jewish writers. There are journalists, academics, clergy, and poets. Taken together, these essays tell one small story about the challenges of living through this experience over the past two years. There are many, many more stories still to be told. 
How did you come to create this book? How did your creative roles differ?
BETH: After our congregation, New Light, went to Charleston, in January 2019 for MLK weekend, I gathered the participants in the trip to write up our experiences. I was going to send these short pieces to those who hosted us as a way of thanking them. I never did that, but started thinking about putting an anthology together. I approached Eric, thinking he could help with photos of the objects left at the site, but he suggested we focus on local authors. 
I think we both edited the pieces and spoke with authors, though I knew more of the authors than Eric did and had a number of preliminary conversations with many of them before they even began to write. Eric is more organized and computer savvy than I am and was good at setting deadlines and dividing tasks. 
What does the title "Bound in the Bond of Life" mean? 
ERIC: It’s a common phrase in Jewish mourning liturgy, best known for appearing as an acronym on many Jewish gravestones. It is a request for divine protection for the dead, but it is also a call of responsibility for the living to keep the dead present in our lives. 
It must be very difficult to write about a tragedy that occurred in your own community. What was the most difficult thing about putting this book together? What was the best thing about doing so? 
BETH: The best thing was encouraging others to express the important things they had to say, and helping them to articulate their ideas more clearly. The most difficult part was writing my own piece and being honest about the pain I and my family experienced. 
What do you hope readers will take away from this book? 
ERIC: That grief and trauma persist long after coverage of an event ends. And that it is okay to yield to the unexpected ways that grief and trauma can manifest themselves.
For readers who would like to support reforming gun laws, what actions do you suggest taking? 
BETH: Calling and writing to your elected officials to let them know your opinion. Joining an organization, such as Squirrel Hill Stands against Gun Violence or Students Demand Action, that my kids are involved with. 
Would you please share your voting plan with us? Why is voting important to you?
BETH: I mailed my ballot in. I am making calls, sending postcards and going door to door for the candidate that chooses life, as I wrote in this Op Ed for the Forward
ERIC: I’m voting in person. Masked and as distanced as the venue allows. 
Is there anything else you'd like to say that I haven't thought to ask you? 
BETH: The book is essays about the human condition and how people cope with a difficult circumstance. It is not grim or gruesome, though it is not light reading. Any reader will come away with greater respect for his/her fellow humans and the ability to cope even in the face of impossibly difficult circumstances. 
Beth and Eric, thank you for sharing your thoughts with The Book of Life.

Beth Kissileff and Eric Lidji