Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Tree of Life “Mourner’s Kaddish”: 7 Days of “Backward” Shiva

[These musings were written and posted on my Instagram, after sunset, for the seven days leading up to the one-year anniversary of the Tree Life synagogue murder, in which 11 Jews were killed by an anti-Semite/fascist on October 27, 2018, in Pittsburgh. It was my queerly backward way of sitting shiva, in anticipation of the grief of October 27, 2019, and in solidarity especially with Pittsburgh friends feeling the weight of this collective trauma. If you appreciate this post, consider “following” me on Instagram.]

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October 20, 2019

Tree of Life “Mourner’s Kaddish” (1 of 7):

Autumn always feels the most wistful of seasons, though the most painfully beautiful too. Leaves burn bright with color, yet only for what seems an instant. Then, the slightest of breeze tears them from their limbs, sending them tumbling to the ground, to be crushed under foot, or left to crinkle up and decay. All the heights of magic and loss, joy and sorrow, seem to be conjoined in the red-yellow-orange trees—transitions between warmth and cold, light and dark, abundance and emptiness.

This fall feels even more fragile, as if the world itself is in a calamitous transition, as if our hearts, too, are autumnal foliage barely hanging on anymore, ready to be blown asunder by winds that have no mercy.

This October fall day, I watched innumerable leaves, after dropping wordlessly into the grass, seem to embrace each other, as if in anticipation of the week leading up to the one-year anniversary of anti-Semitic murders in a Pittsburgh synagogue. I sat with them, these leaves of life, as if in makeshift shiva, holding space for October 27, 2018, for grief past and present, for all our dead.


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October 21, 2019

Tree of Life “Mourner’s Kaddish” (2 of 7):

Tonight I went to my first Simchat Torah, which basically involved a room full of Jews doing a lot of singing, dancing, eating, and joking to mark an end that is also a beginning that is also cyclic. It’s a ritual that I could visualize being shared among other Jews many moons and centuries ago, all trying to feel a wholeness in a world that too often wants to break us into pieces.

At one point this eve, we spilled out of the space, onto the sidewalk, into the night, to dance; two friends and I took to the street to dance, but with a tinge of rebellion: “Look, we’re here, being who we are in public—Jewish, anarchist, Jewish, queer. Jewish.” Being bold and scared, because who we are marks us—for fascists and other anti-Semites—as something that should never have begun and needs to be ended. It’s what brought a white supremacist into a synagogue in Pittsburgh almost a year ago, and another to a synagogue in Germany a couple weeks ago, with weapon in hand and murder in eyes. It’s what makes us fragile. And not just us. Never just us. Others too—black, brown, Muslim, female, immigrant, Roma, Kurd, and so many others who are “othered.”

On coming home, after Simchat Torah, a friend texted from across two time zones about more state repression, more people made fragile, including folx without those things called “papers.” It’s impossible to paper over the pride and joy we feel in being who we are, though, and the terror and sorrow we’re made to suffer for who we are—fuck you, fascists; fuck you, states, with your cops, prisons, and borders.

Yet we are fragile not simply because we are targets; we’re fragile because we are still beautifully human enough to have hearts that can sing, dance, eat, and joke, and feel abiding solidarity and love for each other, meaning that our hearts can get broken and nonetheless be whole.


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October 22, 2019

Tree of Life “Mourner’s Kaddish” (3 of 7):

How does one keep an open heart when that means opening oneself up for pain alongside pleasure? An open heart beats with anticipation, both for what will fill it with love and what it knows will cause ache; both for what it longs for and what it dreads.

As the nights and their moons inch closer to October 27, the one-year anniversary of what is one more in a long line of pogroms, this time in a Pittsburgh synagogue, I seem to have unintentionally fallen into anticipating my own grief by (as a friend pointed out) doing shiva in reverse, sitting with the seven days before a loss, not after it. Jewish anarchist friends have repeatedly remarked this past year that they “anticipate” a shooting when they are in spaces marked Jewish—readying their hearts for sorrow, or perhaps injury or death. One could say it’s only fear talking, and that’s partly true. Yet it seems to me it’s also the heart yearning to stay wide open, to feel all the feelings, to practice what it might mean to weep inside, if the worst happens (again), but no matter what, to continue to pulse with precious life and all we hold dear.

There is no protecting our hearts, if we are open to the truth of this fascistic world of 5780. We can, though, anticipate our breaths, learning to take them in deeply, let them out deliberately, and self-determine how we want to mourn together, so that we can make a better community of and with our hearts, to better love and rebel, toward a time when being Jewish (and all the beautiful other ways of being that fascists murderously despise) isn’t about having to anticipate such anniversaries anymore.


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October 23, 2019

Tree of Life “Mourner’s Kaddish” (4 of 7):

On this Wednesday leading up to the one-year anniversary on October 27 of the Pittsburgh synagogue murders, Trump came to that city to give a speech, desecrating the space being held there to mourn the Jewish dead. I never used to think in terms of so-called holy places—places set apart for reverence and respect, for communing with ancestor-ghosts and the most profound of human emotions. Since having the honor of watching three people whom I love take their last breaths, though, I’ve taken to making space for grief, for myself and others, increasingly in the form of grief rooms or mantels of mourning.

There’s no magic to starting these spaces. One can simply spread out a cloth, sprinkle some flowers and leaves on it, add a candle or some stones, mix in a personal memento or “altar,” and then invite others to bring a part of themselves there too, until it grows into an intimate collection of memories and love. Then it takes on a magic that I can’t explain. It creates a container—for the hardest and softest of feelings, the most tender of community, the most vulnerable and fierce bravery. It becomes “sacred,” as my friend @kuruchitx told me, when explaining to me why I was sobbing after discovering that someone had been sleeping in the grief room I set up at this past year’s anarchist summer school. “You’re crying because that is sacred space; we made sacred space together. It feels desecrated now.”

We need these sacred spots to allow our “body wisdom,” as a Pittsburgh Jewish anarchist friend texted me today, to remind us of what still demands processing and mourning as we inch toward healing. We need to create these spaces, cherish and share them, and sadly, sometimes we have to fight for them, against those like Trump with blood on their hands. For white supremacy has no respect for the living or dead.

So let us do-it-ourselves in sanctifying more room for embracing the sorrows and joys of this world, from antifa Shabbats this Friday (see RAYJ – Rebellious, Anarchist, Young Jews) to whatever our hearts need this on this Tree of Life anniversary.


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October 24, 2019

Tree of Life “Mourner’s Kaddish” (5 of 7):

About a month ago, I spent a weekend in Pittsburgh, at the invite of a Jewish anarchist friend who wanted to do a Shabbat and Havdallah centering on grief around the synagogue murders as the one-year anniversary neared. It was an honor to join this mourning circle, twice, both times with candles, words, songs, silences, feelings, genuineness, both times with the heaviness of fascistic forces past and present in the background, but also the ghosts of rebel Jewish ancestors.

In between, I heard stories of well-meaning yet hurtful attempts in Pittsburgh to help Jews mourn this past year. In one case, a poster was made featuring a yellow Jewish star—the same color the Nazis used to mark off Jews; in another, numerous 5-pointed stars were cut out and brightly hand-colored to hang around town—somehow oblivious that Jewish stars have 6 points. Outside the eerily still-closed Tree of Life synagogue, now a crime scene or evidence that the anti-Semites’ bullets killed not only 11 Jews but this whole building/community, dozens of trite kids’ drawings line the fence now barricading the space, in a superficial art show that covers over pain with peace signs.

I heard many other stories of bungled efforts to process the trauma, such as gifting little Jewish kids some dolls, much to their bewilderment, but also stories of ignoring it, like kids having to do monthly “active shooter drills” in school with little regard for how triggering that might be after their Tree of Life experience.

Not that people are bad; the grieving arts aren’t taught to us. Still, these stories point to something else: how the structural violence underlying such murders—in mosques, black churches, or synagogues—gets buried because people don’t want to mourn openly, honestly, collectively, with teary yet clear eyes. Such rebellious mourning not only holds the messy-beautiful truth that sorrow and joy are inseparable; it cries out and fights for a world where fewer lives will be stolen, whether by vigilante racists, cops, or borders.

We must mourn well, because we must organize far better while trying to heal.


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October 25, 2019

Tree of Life “Mourner’s Kaddish” (6 of 7):

“Where are we in the fabric of creation when we pull on different strands in the histories of resistance to fascism?” “What feels like joyous resistance?”

The fourteen of us who gathered tonight in Montreal never quite got around to discussing these and other questions from our antifa Shabbat guide. Perhaps we didn’t need to.

It was enough to pull apart the strands of challah and weave a community of rebellious Jews a little bit tighter. It was enough to sing a song that one of our circle wrote with the refrain “Mourning our dead, fighting for the living,” and sing a complex one about longing and a simple one about being a revolutionary, and another that was titled, we noted with awe, “Tree of Life” in Hebrew. It was enough to debate the mishmash of who we are today because of diaspora, talk about our solidarity banner (“from Quebec City to Pittsburgh,” linking mosque and synagogue as targets of white supremacy) for our “rad Jew bloc” this Sunday at a big antiracism demo, eat absurd amounts and varieties of delicious home-cooked food, and laugh to the glow of candles.

It was enough, for me, to have a few minutes to express thanks that we’d circled close around a table to do an antifa Shabbat for other rebellious Jewish friends in Pittsburgh, and to be able to name the grief they are feeling as the 1-year anniversary of the anti-Semitic murder of 11 Jews nears on October 27, and how this is our way of letting them know that we too are grieving and that they are not alone—as anarchist, antifascist, queer, beautiful Jews. I could feel our Shabbes stretching from our space to my friends’ in Pittsburgh, like diasporic peoples repeatedly fighting for their lives have done through knowing they are sharing rituals and traditions and humor, sustaining each other across time and space, however pulled apart.

This, tonight—all this and more—this is what joyous resistance feels like, and it’s precisely what nourishes us enough to continue battling against fascism even as we continue to create life.


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October 26, 2019

Tree of Life “Mourner’s Kaddish” (7 of 7):

It is thought by some Jews that when all is closed off to us, tears will smash all the locks and throw open the gates—with all that tears hold within them, from the most bitter grief to the sweetest joy.

On this last night of queered shiva, counting backward to the one-year anniversary of the fascist and anti-Semitic murders of 11 Jews in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh tomorrow, I tenderly offer 7 cups of tears as a rebellious mourning practice.

Pick your favorite mismatched tea cups. Wash them with care. Dry them with care too. Set them in a collective grief circle, fill each with the “tears” that have meaning for you. Mine here included cleansing cedar, diasporic soil, stones of remembrance, seeds boding a better year, the salt that stings when crying, a deep-black glitter as if stars and moon combined, and printing-block letters and symbols to craft words as weapons, inspiration, and wisdom. Cradle each cup in your hands, savoring the warmth. Drink deep of your medicinal mourning “teas,” taking them into that heart of yours that’s in many pieces, to help mend it along with this world.

Feel the gates fly open, your tears a mighty body of water mingling together with those of all our 7 cups of tears, until we have enough tears to open prison doors, smash border and occupation walls, and dismantle all hierarchical divides. Feel the gates open wide on October 27, as we share solidarity and dignity, love and rage, resistance and dreams, with strength and determination that #WeWillOutLive.

And for all those murdered by fascists,
#MayTheirMemoryBeABlessing 💔🖤

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October 27, 2019

This is our gift, from my beloved Jew crew in Montreal, to our friends, old and new, in Pittsburgh. We painted this banner for you yesterday, on Shabbat, as an act of love not work, as part of our own mourning ritual to accompany yours, many miles away.

This is our solidarity to you, from the streets of Montreal today, carried in an antiracism demo, to mark the one-year anniversary this October 27 of the Tree of Life synagogue murders.

This is our outstretched heart to you, dear Pittsburgh anarchist friends, for we feel such similar aches about a world that keeps forcing us to grieve, precisely because we know the magic of creating our own brave spaces, tender fierceness, and beloved communities of care.


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