I typed in “Tree of Life Pittsburgh.” The “thinking” swirl came on the screen of the search window for a second before being replaced by a network of streets near Pittsburgh labeled: Squirrel Hill. Squirrel Hill. The gears and cogs in my head swung instantly into action and a clear image, and name, popped into mind. Lovely homes, tree-lined streets–a residential area like many others–and the Apples. I’d felt fortunate to get such a good placement for the weekend I spent there, back in the 70s. The “Apples” were sure to be a smiling bunch with welcoming round cheeks and ruddy, energetic personalities to match their complexions. They didn’t disappoint. They were just one of the wonderful parts of a youth group retreat held at Congregation Rodef Shalom–a congregation that whose sanctuary was gorgeous and bedecked as my own back in Philadelphia and, auspiciously, had the very same name. My recollection of that weekend ends there, vivid only to a point, but fixing that spot in Pittsburgh firmly in my memory bank.
Staring at the map on my phone I scanned from one synagogue to the other. A short distance separated a place of fond memories from that plastered across news’ flashes worldwide. The warm memory that had filled me just a few precious seconds earlier, disappeared–replaced by a chill.
My husband and I had just left the movie theater. We’d watched “First Man,” the story of Neil Armstrong and his obsession with the moon. Before pulling my phone out of my purse we’d been deep in conversation, discussing one of the simple pleasures of our youth: those models we’d both (albeit on two sides of the world) enjoyed building. The thrill of bringing them home from the store, the lovely anticipation of the activity soon to follow: an entire day spent carefully arranging the various parts on a clean surface, cutting the balsa to size according to the enclosed instructions, popping the premanufactured plastic elements out of their molds, gluing the elements with a firm hand in order to ensure smooth seams; the satisfaction of sticking on the tiny stickers at the very end and gazing with pride at our own miniature lookalikes, whether rockets, space capsules or lunar landers.
It was such a simple pleasure at such a simple time. Bemoaning the loss of a generation that could devote itself to quiet, time-consuming activities able of producing the makings of a dream, ones that held no space for attention deficit disorders; maligning the newer technology that has made such archaic activities seem redundant, if not downright lame, I ingenuously reached into my purse and took a look at my phone.
Three clicks and all thoughts of the movie, and activities that demanded concentration and had nothing to do with moving colors on a screen, were gone. I’d moved from model spaceships to the massacre of innocents; from Zichron to Squirrel Hill. And that momentary warm rush brought on by the memory of that neighborhood? It was erased just as quickly, a magical weekend transformed into the scene of unimaginable carnage.
There in the car park I craved any way at all to take one giant leap backward; to retreat from the progress so proudly pronounced by Armstrong as he’d put his foot down on the crumbly lunar surface that memorable day in 1969; to turn the clock back on the kind of advancement, be it the abuse of social media or the manipulation of the press, that fanned the flames of hatred; that has, somehow, played a role in thrusting civilization back into the dark ages. Way back when, crouched over pieces of plastic and wood, I never imagined this to be my children’s reality. Baby steps may be the only way forward.