Higher and Higher: Star-Gazing in Squirrel Hill

sparkle Star of David with heart hanging from tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Star of David + heart on Forbes Ave.: one of two thousand, in and around Squirrel Hill

The little stars are made from glitter and felt, plastic and wood, popsicle sticks and laminated paper. They’re tied to the tiniest branches of street trees with ribbon, wire, and bailing twine; they rest lazily in boxwood hedges. The stars commune with other memorials left on handrails and steps, safety gates, and police barricades.

Overwhelmingly, though, each of the small totems–a six-pointed Star of David with a heart at its center–has been knit or crocheted by hand and attached to utility poles throughout central Squirrel Hill[1]. When you pass down Wilkins or Shady, Forbes or Negley, you’ll not miss the stars fluttering–dancing, even–in the breeze.

crochet Star of David with heart hanging from utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

October 27, 2018 may well go down as Pittsburgh’s 9/11–the remember-exactly-where-you-were date for a generation’s most horrific local atrocity. Me, I was in Bellevue, dressed in a stupid outfit, holding a trombone, and standing in the cold rain at the tail end of the borough’s Halloween parade.

The relentless weather that morning pretty much kept all of the expected crowd home, leaving just us obligated parade marchers to get the news all at the same point. I remember feeling useless and helpless–milling around on the vacant, closed-to-traffic main drag before heading home without even saying goodbye.

crochet Star of David with heart on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

By now, America has sadly gotten plenty of practice grieving for the victims of mass shootings and violent hate crimes. Even if you didn’t make it up to the Tree of Life synagogue in the days following the massacre, you know what the outside scene inevitably looked like. The victims here were all adults–so it didn’t feature quite so many teddy bears as your, yes, average school shooting–but the scene of an overflowing buffet of flowers and personal notes, photographs and mementos set against protective barriers and caution tape was all there.

In the two months since the Tree of Life shooting, most of these memorials have been relocated. But by mid-November a second-wave tribute–beautiful in its decentralization, variety, and spirit–arrived throughout pedestrian Squirrel Hill.

wooden disc with Star of David hanging on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Star of David made from postage stamps hanging on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Right now, thousands of handmade Stars of David decorate nondescript public spaces and street-facing hedges and gates in the neighborhood[2]. They radiate out from the Tree of Life synagogue and populate Squirrel Hill’s business district along Forbes and Murray Aves.

The stars are the work of an impromptu online group called Jewish Hearts for Pittsburgh, started by two “craftivists,” Hinda Mandell and Ellen Dominus Broude, both from separate parts of Upstate New York. The Post-Gazette has an article and short video detailing that effort.

collage of homemade Stars of David found around Pittsburgh, PA

Likely, most of those who experience the Tree of Life stars will only see them as brief flashes of color, twiddling in the breeze through the passenger-side window–their forms may not even be recognizable at any speed. The Orbit recommends ditching the car and taking a long contemplative walk around middle Squirrel Hill’s wide streets as the best way to inhabit the diffuse tribute.

golden wire Star of David on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Perhaps it should be no surprise but the totality of the experience is incredibly moving. The first, gut reaction to these handmade, intersected symbols of Judaism and love, sent from supportive crafters from around the world, is the most obvious.

“There is more good in the world than evil,” says Ms. Broude in the P-G video, “An assault against one is an assault against all.”[3] That message–something terrible happened here, but there is way more love than hate in the world–comes though loud and clear, ringing out from the branches and telephone poles.

crochet Star of David with heart on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

But it doesn’t stop there. So many of the knit stars–hung from a single point, stretched out by gravity, and curled in the weather–end up taking on unexpected anthropomorphic qualities. [Yes, there is one extra appendage in this representation.] The little bodies appear alternately huddled and triumphant, at rest and in play, lifted and weightless in the wind.

collage of homemade Stars of David found around Pittsburgh, PA

This atheist goy had to Google “Jewish belief in an afterlife.” While the religion isn’t nearly as hung up on the notion of heaven as Christianity–preferring instead to value and emphasize life here on earth–it’s also not without its post-mortal coil fallback options. This description, from the Chabad site, seems to sum up the philosophy:

There isn’t anything after life, because Jews believe that life never ends. It just goes higher and higher. In the afterlife, the soul is liberated from the body and returns closer to her source than ever before.

crochet Stars of David on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Sure, it was a windy day when we visited and took these photos, but the rapturous lifting of these little forms–literally higher and higher off of their twig and twine moorings, flying up towards the sun–felt like liberation. Hopefully, for the victims, family, and friends of the Tree of Life shooting, they’ll find some peace in this beautiful expression of love.

crochet Star of David with heart hanging from tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA


[1] … and supposedly elsewhere. (But we’ve only seen them in Squirrel Hill.)
[2] Organizers estimate “around 2000” stars. Source: https://www.post-gazette.com/news/faith-religion/2018/11/17/Jewish-Stars-of-David-Tree-of-Life-Pittsburgh-volunteers-knit-crochet-twelve-countries-crafts-facebook/stories/201811170055
[3] Ibid.

Mondo Menorah! Menorahmobile Models Measured

Grand Menorah Parade lineup, Rodef Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA

Grand Menorah Parade lineup, Rodef Shalom, Oakland

“Do you want to know the secret? My brother made all of those.”

The speaker [I’m afraid I was moving too fast to get any names] is a genial, middle-aged man leaning up against a plain white passenger van that sports a glorious gold-painted menorah on its roof. Across the middle of the piece is a placard with stenciled letters: Happy Chanukah. The ornament is clearly custom-crafted and has sibling menorahs of the same exact design on dozens of other vehicles across the lot.

man posing in front of white van with rooftop menorah, Pittsburgh, PA

“Do you want to know the secret? My brother made all of those.”

When you start ogling menorahmobiles–vehicles decorated with oversize ornamental electric menorahs for the Jewish holiday of Chanukah–you’ll find there are four basic models, distributed in roughly equal proportions.

There’s the plastic, light-up magnetic roof-topper made by Magnet Menorah. It basically looks like a similar-sized adjunct to the delivery car for a corporate pizza chain, only it’s got the image of nine candles, a phalanx of dreidels, a pile of gelt (gold coins), and the scrolled text Happy Chanukah in place of the Domino’s or Pizza Hut logo. This one may satisfy obligations–and is certainly convenient with minimums of both muss and fuss–but it’s got no soul. I was told “Those don’t count” by one, and even as both novice and outsider, I have to agree.

car with plastic rooftop menorah, Pittsburgh, PA

“Those don’t count.” magnet menorah by Magnet Menorah

Also commercially available is the competing, stainless steel model from CarMenorah.com. It features the eight daily Chanukah candles (each a separate, switchable LED light), four angled outward in one direction and four in the other, plus the tall center shamash. This design doesn’t have the convenient magnets, but it’s mounted to a roof-spanning bar that lashes discreetly for a nice tight side-to-side presentation. CarMenorahs come with one of a few optional professionally-printed wrapper-bases with messages like Happy Chanukah and Chabad wishes you a Happy Chanukah.

Simply by virtue of its choice in materials, CarMenorah’s design looks a lot nicer than the light-up plastic taxi topper offered by Magnet Menorah, but it still lacks any real individuality.

car with rooftop menorah reading "Chabad wishes you a happy Chanukah", Pittsburgh, PA

Stainless steel and LED CarMenorah.com design

Once you get past these mail-order, pre-fab car menorahs, we get to the good stuff.

Many vehicles feature menorahs with the same overall design as the CarMenorah piece, but built of wood on a 2×4 base rather than pre-assembled stainless steel. The more up-to-date of these include switchable LED lights; others had old-school tiny incandescent bulbs. Each set seems to have included a good-sized blank white board with room enough for the family to create their own custom messages across each side. Many simply pulled out the stencils and colored-in Happy Chanukah, but we also saw the additions of floral artwork, 8 Great Nights, and one pan of frying latkes.

Two cars with rooftop menorahs and home made "Happy Chanukah" signs, Pittsburgh, PA

Wooden menorahs make for 8 great nights!

lit rooftop menorah with homemade "Happy Chanukah" sign featuring frying latkes, Pittsburgh, PA

Thanks a latke, menorahmobile!

Finally, there is a particularly unique-to-Pittsburgh design that stands (literally) above all other car menorahs. Constructed of stout PVC pipe, spaced and jointed at 45-degree angles, and connected to a base spanning the width of the roof of a car, these menorahs extend probably 30 inches off the vehicle’s roof. A switch array connects the nine candle lights to the vehicle’s cigarette lighter. These menorahs become glorious headdresses to the otherwise plain Maximas and Odysseys they adorn.

Aside from the clever ingenuity of these materials, the PVC menorah wins on both simple elegance and sheer grandeur of its design. The menorah alone, spray-painted silver with no other adornment, is a striking and beautiful sight–the automobile underneath becomes but a humble pedestal for such interesting rolling modern sculpture.

mini van with rooftop menorah and "Happy Chanukah" banner, Pittsburgh, PA

PVC car menorah, electrical pole not included

If the spectator wants to see the full panoply of menorahmobiles, ground zero is Chabad of Pittsburgh’s Grand Menorah Parade. This year, it was held on Dec. 28, the fifth day of Chanukah. Detail-focused Orbit readers will note many photos included here have five bulbs lit and three dark.

The parade group assembles in the big back parking lot of Rodef Shalom Temple in Oakland and let this blogger tell you: it’s menorahmobiles as far and wide as the eye can see. Any lapse in reporting on this story can be blamed on the simple overwhelming number of subjects to try to catch, photograph, and say hello to in the midst of rapidly-diminishing daylight and the parade group’s imminent takeoff.

sedan with menorah and "Happy Chanukah" sign on roof, Pittsburgh, PA

Street menorahmobile, Squirrel Hill

white car with home made menorah on roof, Pittsburgh, PA

One on the street and one in the driveway. Squirrel Hill.

While fans can bag a virtually unlimited number of menorahmobiles in the setup for the parade, it’s also great to spot them “in the wild”. For the eight days of Chanukah, jaunts down the residential streets of Squirrel Hill will yield cockscombed Corollas and mohawked minivans casually parked on curbsides and driveways throughout.

* * *

One final thought: While this exercise was enlightening and fun, ultimately we found ourselves wishing the vehicle owners put more emphasis on creativity and individuality than simply selecting one of four off-the-shelf models. Menorahs come in infinite fantastic and original designs and have been a common subject for Jewish artists forever. Of course the roof of an automobile imposes some practical limitations to what the car’s owner can do, but I bet the community would come up with some really incredible creations if just given a little bit more of a prompt.

lineup for Grand Menorah Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Lineup for the Grand Menorah Parade at sundown, Rodef Shalom, Oakland