A Tree of Life is a must-watch documentary about the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, one of the worst antisemitic attacks in the US.
October 27, 2018 is a date that the Jewish community will never forget. Eleven Jews–half of the people in the building–died that day. I found out about the act of hate while I was making my way to shul that morning. Over three years later, it’s a terrorist attack that none of us will forget anytime soon. Since 2018, there have been more acts of Jew-hatred. This year alone has seen way too many attacks against Jews. We’re seeing it outside of Holocaust museums, on college campuses, and outside of synagogues. I’ll have more on the numbers here in a few.
At point during the film, all I wanted to do was just write: I think I’m going to feel sick. I wasn’t there in Pittsburgh on that tragic Shabbas. No, I was in Chicago worrying about my friends from Pittsburgh. I was worried for not just their safety but whether their family was okay. Following the tragedy, I learned that one of the victims was the aunt of a colleague. Nothing that I write in this review will be able to undo the horrific tragedy. I find myself thinking of the victims, survivors, and their family and friends. All we can do is just hope that nothing like this ever happens again.
It’s hard to write this review without discussing the politics of it all. Shortly after the shooting, Donald and Melania Trump paid their respects outside the shul. They were met by protestors and certainly with good reason. When given the chance to denounce white nationalists, Trump was very consistent in refusing to do so. Yes, families need to grieve their losses but the Trump presence does not help given his enabling of antisemitism. At one point, we see video from this year’s terrorist attack on the United States Capitol. Antisemitic conspiracy theories being what they are also means Jews getting the blame for the attacks. It certainly makes zero sense but this is antisemitism in a nutshell.
Pittsburgh native Trish Adlesic is not seeking to remake the genre nor does she need to. Even while learning more about the victims, the Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaker uses the film to ask larger questions about America. We cannot ignore the political climate under Trump. When you have someone like Trump enabling hatred through their rhetoric, it leads to events like this one. What we know about the coward (which I refuse to name) is that they posted on social media about their hatred of Jews and immigrants. It is this kind of rhetoric that Trump brought to the forefront. At one point, both survivors and family members discuss their views on the death penalty. There are strong feelings on both sides.
One part that touched me in viewing the film was how Pittsburgh’s Muslim community stood in solidarity. I had tears falling when Wasi Mohamed talks of calling up the funeral home and saying that they were going to pay for every funeral. If this isn’t a touching moment, I don’t know what is. He didn’t even have the money but he knew his community would come through with the donations. And raise the money they did! Please excuse me while I wipe away the tears from my eyes.
Jews make up about 3% of the American population but since 2010, over 50% of the 15,000 religious-based hate crimes have been against Jews. In 2020, the number was over 2,000 antisemitic incidents. The statistics are certainly not getting any better in 2021.
May their memories be for a blessing:
- Joyce Fienberg
- Richard Gottfried
- Rose Mallinger
- Jerry Rabinowitz
- Cecil Rosenthal
- David Rosenthal
- Bernice Simon
- Sylvan Simon
- Daniel Stein
- Melvin Wax
- Irving Younger
Edit for Release: The film was renamed: A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting for its theatrical release. While the release is timed to the fourth anniversary of the tragedy, antisemitism is on the rise again in the United States. Most recently, Kanye West has been spouting antisemitic comments while his mental illness is getting the blame. Mental illness should not be a scapegoat for someone having sincere hatred against Jews. They had to get radicalized in their hate somewhere.
DIRECTOR: Trish Adlesic
SCREENWRITERS: Trish Adlesic and Eric Schuman
FEATURING: Carol Black, Joe Charny, Anthony Fienberg, Magali Fienberg, Martin Gaynor, Audrey Glickman, Dan Leger, Ellen Leger, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, Brad Orsini, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, Diane Rosenthal, Eliezer Rosenthal, Joy Rosenthal, Michele Rosenthal, Ellen Surloff, Andrew Wedner, Ron Wedner, Stephen Weiss, Barry Werber, Ann Besler, Codi Besler, Josh Bloom, Barbara Caplan, Joel Charny Steven Cohen, Cory O’Connor, Shannon Foley-Martinez, Rabbi Shlomo Zini, Tim Hinds, Ken Jacobson, Hannibal Lokume, Rosanne Mendel-Levine, Wasi Mohamed, Judah Samet, Augue Siriano, Ericka Strassburger
A Tree of Life holds its world premiere during DOC NYC 2021 in the U.S. Competition. HBO will air the film on October 26, 2022 at 9 PM ET/PT and it will be streaming on HBO Max. Grade: 5/5
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