We Still Have a Heart in Ourselves
The ground beneath my feet was grass.
It was soft, fuzzy, and long. It scratched against my black boots. It was different ground then where I’d stood three years ago. Then, I was at my grandparents' house. There was construction at my house, so I wasn't home. That day, that night, I stood on different ground. And, again, tonight, three years later, I’m under a tent, singing and praying with my community. Remembering. Remembering that day.
Three years ago.
Three years seems like a long time, but I remember it like it was yesterday, and fear it like it will happen tomorrow. My grandparents were on a trip, in Vermont. We were staying temporarily at my dad’s parents, my grandparents’ house. They are fancy people, with fragile objects that shouldn’t be touched. I saw statues of Jesus and Mary, and red tapered candles on the dining room table.
I am not like them. I am Jewish. I am used to the Mezuzah, bolted into the side of the door, and Hanukkah candles in the freezer. But, it is different at a Christian’s house.
Every Friday, Jews would put on their tallit and kippah, and, if you are the religious type, you walk to synagogue. I am not the religious type, but my uncle and his family are. They go to shul every Friday, and pray to God, thanking him for creating the Earth. On that Saturday morning, they went too.
Tree of Life is a small congregation. Even on a Saturday morning, the most crowded occasion, very few people attend. It wasn’t always like this. I remember the halls, packed with people. The hall was so noisy, voices echoing off the walls. Kids ran around in their Purim costumes, and tugged on their parents’ legs trying to gain their attention. People greeted us at the door and hugged us, handing us our sidurs. I’d run in and Rabbi Chuck would squeeze me tight, the strings of his tallit brushing along my face. We sat between the pillars in the main sanctuary and played LEGOS secretly, quietly in the aisles. We’d bring buckets of small knights and make them fight on top of a siddur. People stood in the hallways and chatted as Rabbi Chuck- and later, Rabbi Myers- chanted the prayers and hundreds of voices chimed in. When my mom recognized someone, she gave them a hug and laughed and talked.
Sometimes, things change. You eat Cavatelli for a week, and one day, you decide to eat Gnocchi. Things are different now. It isn’t about Gnocchi or Cavatelli. It’s about life or death.
Words aren’t processed as fast as you receive them.
I remember my mom’s face, changing from a neutral skin tone, to a pale white. She shut the phone. Fear rushed through me. “There is an active shooter at Tree of Life,” she said.
I received the words into my brain, but the processing took a minute. As soon as it was processed, fear, then questions. That is one thing I remember very well. Questions.
At Tree of Life? Are you sure?
My mother tried to call her brother, to find out where he was. If he was safe. She tried at 9:50. And, again. And again.
Who was it? How many killed?
Are Uncle Sam and Max, and Auntie Andy, and Simon okay?
I didn’t know whether they were alive, or not.
My mother went to my father, and they talked rapidly, using words I didn’t know.
I was so confused.
“Turn on the T.V. Quick. Please,” my mother said.
We all rushed into the room with a television, and turned it on. We changed the channel to CNN, but, really, it would probably be on any channel.
At least three deaths. Exchanging Gunfire. Shelter in Place.
On the T.V., we read the most dreadful words. My mother walked frantically around the room. She kept calling Uncle Sam. Finally, he answered.
My uncle was always late to things, and for once, it saved his life.
Time passed. They said that more died. In the end, eleven were dead.
This is what we remembered. The day we lost eleven. The day our synagogue was taken from us. Where we prayed and laughed together. As a congregation. As a community. As a family.
Now, three years later.
Fear is still with me. The shooting changed me. I will always have fear in me, and worry about the very next day, hour, minute, second. I never want to lose what I lost again. People make sure of it, like the police. They guard every service we have, and make sure we are safe. It is kind, but why do they need to do it? Why is our world so much like it is, that Jewish people, Black, and Muslim people need to have police watching their backs? (Or, need people to watch the police?)
I don’t want someone protecting me from the bad. I don’t want there to be bad.
But the world is still like this.
I still stand, the grass beneath my boots. I still stand, in the house of my grandparents. I still stand, the tragedy on the T.V. screen. I still stand with my community, holding their hands.
We keep the memory of the people we lost. We keep our community. We keep our hearts in our bodies, in ourselves.
They may have taken my community, my synagogue, and some of my courage. But they will not take away my heart.