Writer‘s Block

Writer‘s Block

Mark Oppenheimer has just come from picking up a prescription for a neighbor when we meet at his Westville house. The dappled sunlight on his front porch isn’t great for the portrait I’ve come to take, but no worries. We cross the street, and a neighbor lets us use their porch instead. This is how it goes with Oppenheimer and his beloved West Rock Avenue block, which, he wrote in a 2008 piece for The New York Times, is “neither a suburban idyll nor a hip, funky enclave. It just works.”

Oppenheimer’s lasting interest in his own neighborhood led him to another that, in some ways, resembles this one, at least in its “soul.” It’s the subject of his newest book, Squirrel Hill. Located 450 miles from Westville in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Squirrel Hill is home to some of the same neighborhood amenities: “the public library, the post office, the movie theater, the ice cream shop, the shoe store, the kosher butcher…” It was home to Oppenheimer’s great-great-great grandfather and every generation that followed, down to his father. It’s also home to Tree of Life, the synagogue that was the site of a mass shooting on October 27, 2018, when a gunman killed 11 people; 11 others escaped, some of them injured. Oppenheimer’s book, subtitled The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood, is due out October 5.

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“Quite understandably, much of the early reporting on the Tree of Life crime focused on the alleged killer, who apparently had spent his recent life in the ugliest depths of the racist internet,” Oppenheimer writes in the book’s prologue. “He did not interest me. And the victims were eulogized at length. I was interested in everyone else.” The book begins with the events of October 27 as told through the eyes of Squirrel Hill resident Tammy Hepps, whose image would later be broadcast around the world as she held a prayer book and recited psalms with two friends. Its chapters then follow the tragedy’s aftermath, many of them focusing on the people of Squirrel Hill: “The Gentiles,” “The Young,” “The Archivist,” “The Body Guards,” “The Visitors.” And, of course, “Those Inside.”

Judaism and religion in general is the common thread that runs through most of Oppenheimer’s work. He grew up in a secular Jewish home in Springfield, Massachusetts, in another neighborhood “very similar to Westville,” and first came to New Haven as a Yale undergraduate, planning to study drama. That idea fizzled once he met peers in the theater department whom he found to be both more serious and more talented. It wasn’t until his junior year that two classes converged and forged his new identity: a nonfiction writing class with the novelist Robert Stone (“a very good teacher because he was quite candid about how mediocre our writing was”) and a course in religion, which seemed a natural intersection of Oppenheimer’s interests. “It’s philosophy, it’s literature, it’s music, it’s theology, it’s history,” he says. “It struck me as kind of all-encompassing field of study.”

Today, Oppenheimer is the author of three previous books, a freelance writer for numerous national publications (readers may know him as The New York Times’s monthly Beliefs columnist during the 2010s) and one of the co-hosts of the Tablet magazine podcast Unorthodox, “a smart, fresh, fun weekly take on Jewish news and culture,” as its website describes it, with tens of thousands of listeners. He also teaches a creative writing class at Yale and runs the Yale Journalism Initiative. And, true to his love of neighborhood, he puts out an old-school newsletter three times a month, printed in a typewriter font, tri-folded and sealed with a sticker (he just purchased a machine to help with that task) and mailed to 400 subscribers. The featured news comes from the tongue-in-cheek “Oppenshire Manor” with a hint of Lake Wobegon. In one recent issue, for example, he describes the daily arrival of the mail carrier and opines on the alumni notes sections of school magazines.

A parent of five children, aged two to fourteen, with his wife Cyd, an attorney, Oppenheimer escapes his busy home to write in the coworking space at Lotta Studio. When I suggest he must be worn out by juggling gigs as a writer/teacher/podcast host and his big, growing family, he pauses, then asks, “Am I allowed to say no?” Except for the two-year-old, he says, his kids are “pretty self-sufficient.” He does wonder what his friends with one child get to do that he doesn’t. Cheaper vacations and dinners out? The main thing about having fewer kids, he figures, is “you get your own life back sooner,” but he doesn’t seem to be waiting for that day.

Still, being a reporter who chases after deep and difficult stories like the Tree of Life shooting sometimes has worn on Oppenheimer. His son was a newborn when the shooting occurred, but he realized within a week that he wanted to write a book about it. Over the next 18 months, he took 32 trips to Pittsburgh, rising at four a.m., driving to New York or Boston and flying to Pittsburgh, where he’d conduct five or six interviews before returning home around midnight.

It can also be hard to ride the ups and downs of religion reporting, as it “goes in and out of fashion.” “There are times,” Oppenheimer says, “when everyone wants a religion reporter—you know, after 9/11, when there are priest scandals, when it seems to immigration or elections. And then there are times when nobody wants a religion reporter.” The New York Times, he says, currently has just two, down from five. Readers, he believes, care more about religion than editors, who—at least, in his experience—have uniformly been “secular coastal elites.” “If you’re a sports writer, your editor on the sports desk probably knows sports better than you do,” Oppenheimer says. “If you’re a religion writer, you’re lucky to get an editor who knows anything about religion.”

He quotes some favorite advice from former Times religion reporter Gustav Niebuhr: “The most important thing is having good story ideas.” His own newest ideas include a biography of the advice columnist Ann Landers (born Esther Friedman), “the most-read woman in the world until J.K. Rowling.” Landers’s archives have just been donated to the Chicago Public Library. He’s also considering a book about his grandfather, based on letters written to his grandmother circa 1930 during a crosstown Philadelphia courtship.

Oppenheimer has flirted with writing a West Rock Avenue book, but being both a good neighbor and a good reporter could prove thorny or even impossible. Instead, it seems, he’ll keep dispatching his lighthearted “news from Westville” via snail mail and seek out the heftier stories elsewhere.

Mark Oppenheimer
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Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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