PLEASE NOTE: Date with the State, featuring keynote speaker author and podcaster Mark Oppenheimer, has been rescheduled for March 9, 2022. Stay tuned for details, coming soon.
“It’s been very, very heartening,” said author Mark Oppenheimer on the reaction he’s getting to his newest book about Squirrel Hill, the Pittsburgh neighborhood shattered by the 2018 murders of eleven Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue. That’s at least in part because Oppenheimer turned the usual post-shooting gaze away from the gunman and toward how the Squirrel Hill community itself is finding a way forward.
After traveling to more than 25 cities, signing thousands of copies of his book, and conducting dozens of Zoom talks and phone calls, Oppenheimer has discovered he has a new superpower: turning out Pittsburghers wherever he goes. “It’s drawing out the Pittsburgh diaspora,” he said, “and when those people read the book, they say it accurately captures their memories of the neighborhood.”
Oppenheimer’s connection to Squirrel Hill preceded the Tree of Life shootings. His father grew up on Aylesboro Avenue in the center of the neighborhood, and for four generations before that, Oppenheimer’s family lived in Pittsburgh. So his tenured connection to the neighborhood, along with more than a decade of reporting about neighborhoods in general, provided both impetus and a solid, personal foundation for the book.
Said Oppenheimer, “I’ve always been very interested in what makes neighborhoods succeed, what makes them welcoming. I’m very interested in raw facts: geographical compactness, human scale, walkability, the presence of multi-generational families who have all lived in the neighborhood… All of those special things matter a lot.” And all of them, he says, are key to Squirrel Hill’s ability to come through the 2018 tragedy.
Oppenheimer will be the keynote speaker at the JEWISHcolorado Jewish Community Relations Council’s upcoming Date with the State on March 9, 2022. Tickets and Oppenheimer’s book are available here.
The biennial event will also include remarks from lawmakers Senate President Leroy Garcia and House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar. Following the keynote will be a panel of community leaders speaking on safety and security threats. “With our focus this year on legislation to support the security of houses of worship and nonprofits, we’re excited to have Mark join us that morning to discuss his book,” said JEWISHcolorado External Affairs Director Joseph Dubroff.
Security concerns—and to an even greater extent the pandemic—have pushed numerous Jewish worship and gatherings online, but Oppenheimer emphasizes that, while precautions are in order, “We have to accept a certain amount of risk to be together as Jews. Judaism is not on Zoom.” He continued, “It is utterly crucial with illness and with gun violence that we take precautions. As with other aspects of risk, we have to be sane, but we also have to keep living… We must figure out what security measures are reasonable. The most secure thing would always to be stay home. But at that point, we’ve really lost Judaism.” Judaism, said Oppenheimer, “absolutely relies on physical togetherness. We have to keep getting together in person.”
And so it goes with communities, as well.
Mark Oppenheimer is author of five books and holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Yale University, where he directed the Yale Journalism Initiative. He has also taught at Stanford, Wesleyan, Wellesley, the NYU journalism school, and Boston College, where he was the Corcoran Visiting Professor of Christian-Jewish Relations.
He is the former Beliefs columnist for The New York Times and a contributor to magazines including The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, The Nation, and The New Republic. He hosts “Unorthodox,” the top-rated Jewish-themed podcast on iTunes, for Tablet.
When not writing, podcasting, or signing copies of Squirrel Hill, Oppenheimer spends time with his five children and bakes challah week after week from the very same recipe, which can be found in Marcy Goldman’s Jewish Holiday Baking. When it comes to bread, said Oppenheimer, “I’m skeptical of innovation… I would rather there be no sprinkles or chives on my challah.”
Date with the State is part of JEWISHcolorado’ lecture series Community Conversations.
Date with the State sponsors include United Water & Sanitation District, Monarch Casino & Resort, Mizel Family Foundations, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Malman Opatowski, Chevron, Foster Graham Milstein & Calisher, the Zeff Kesher Foundation, and United Airlines.