My family has a long running joke: “The corner of Forbes and Murray is the center of the universe.” What it means is that, if you just ask enough questions, eventually you will probably find out that someone you thought was a stranger is really from Squirrel Hill. At least a little bit. So you should never assume that strangers are strangers. Assume they’re “mishpucha” — family — and act accordingly.
Growing up in Squirrel Hill means being enfolded by the mishpucha.
Everyone up street is a teacher, the dentist, a cousin, a grandpa, a grandma, an aunt, an uncle, another aunt, a friend, a neighbor, the rabbi, the pediatrician, a camp counselor — probably like three or four more aunts. The mishpucha cares how you’re doing in school and it wants to know how your grandparents are feeling, and it wants to make sure you packed a sweater just in case it gets cold. It’s hard to describe knowing that practically everyone you see wants nothing but the best for you.
Safe can be stifling, of course. And so very many of us have left Squirrel Hill to do amazing, astounding things. We write for The New York Times, open world-class restaurants in Philadelphia, start music labels in L.A. We’re lawyers and doctors and professors and writers and artists and designers and actors and scientists and entrepreneurs and professionals of every shape. The mishpucha said we could do it, urged us to do it, gave us the strengths and the skills, the resilience and the naiveté necessary to accomplish great things. So we did it. Because if no one ever tells you that you face near impossible odds, you don’t even know to fear them.
We are all hurting really badly right now. Violence and hatred invaded our universe. Those who were killed as they settled in to pray were the essence of the mishpucha. They were the aunts, the teachers, the grandmas, the grandpas, the friends, the cousins, the neighbors who all just wanted the best for us, who loved us unconditionally. The man who did this terrible thing didn’t understand that the mishpucha would have welcomed him that morning, handed him a book, showed him to his seat, asked how we was doing in school and made sure he had a sweater just in case it got cold later. Somehow, he just couldn’t see that he was venting his hatred on the kindest, the gentlest and the most caring people of all.
It is senseless and it is horrifying, and the whole country is watching Squirrel Hill right now. So many are grieving with us, sharing in our pain and experiencing the horror that we’re experiencing. But the mishpucha prepared us even for this. We are what the mishpucha made us, and it made us good, and it made us strong, and it made us caring. The mishpucha taught us to love unconditionally, to fight
for what we believe, and to not forget our sweaters because it might get cold later.
We can show our divided, directionless nation the value that emanates from the corner of Forbes and Murray. There are no strangers. Assume everyone is mishpucha and act like it.
Randall Mark Levine is an attorney in Washington, D.C.