I grew up Jewish. Not really, but it seemed that way. At least to a kid back in the 1950s and early ’60s, Catholic and Jewish life in the old North Yonkers, New York, were part of each other. The first girl I dated was Jewish. She was so comfortable with Catholics that she had no problem dumping me after six months.
It’s the rhetoric of old memories. There is probably nothing more deeply flawed, so forgive me. But I have no real recollection of anti-Semitism, no exposure to that kind of hate as a kid.
It may certainly have been part of the adult world, though with the unthinkable horror of Nazism and the Holocaust just a few years past, maybe they shielded it from us.
There was separation — Jewish private clubs, restaurants, social gatherings and celebrations. But Catholics had the same kind of distinct cultural and religious support groups. None of this seemed forced, mean-spirited or ugly. None of it seemed mandated. None of it intended to keep folks apart and neighborhoods segregated.
Our daily lives as kids were pretty well integrated, however. I went to our Catholic grammar school, but the public elementary school was right across the street. Eighty percent of Catholic kids went there and got the day off for Jewish holidays. Some Irish kids probably knew more about Rosh Hashanah than the feast of All Souls.
My buddy Mark developed a fascination with all things Jewish when he was around 11. I can remember him buying halva, a kind of candy identified with Judaism but probably the oldest dessert in the world, going back to India or Byzantium. He loved it. I thought the stuff tasted like old pants.
We played baseball over at the park together, hung around the candy store run by two Jewish guys together. Jewish kids were good at tennis; Catholic kids played football. We all thought we were good at basketball, and we weren’t.
There was no anti-Semitism in our Catholic education. No nuns or priests blamed Jews for the death of Jesus. They made it very clear that it was our sins, that every time we picked on our little brother we pushed on that crown of thorns.
It was life. It was neighborhood.
I can’t get the horror of Pittsburgh out of my mind. People slaughtered by a madman with a gun shouting, “Death to Jews!” He didn’t know any of them. He was killing what he called “children of Satan.” When does the sacredness of a human life get lost in a hate-filled caricature? When does hatred become ordinary?
I worked in Pittsburgh, and I know the Tree of Life Congregation and the Squirrel Hill neighborhood where the killings took place. They are not far from St. Paul Cathedral, the see church of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Squirrel Hill is old city — stately homes, quiet yards, old trees. We didn’t have a distinct Jewish neighborhood in North Yonkers that I remember. But Squirrel Hill is the kind of serene place a body hopes for, Catholic or Jewish.
The Catholic and Jewish communities have been traditionally close in Pittsburgh, certainly since the Second Vatican Council. Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh has led joint Catholic-Jewish pilgrimages, including recent trips to the Holy Land.
In a terrible irony, then-bishop of Pittsburgh Donald Wuerl spoke at the Tree of Life Congregation on gun violence in May 2000.
“Words cannot stop weapons,” Bishop Wuerl said. “Statements will not contain hatred. But commitment and conversion can change us, and together we can change our culture and our communities.”
But not yet. The hatred came to Tree of Life in October. And 11 people died.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.